Saturday, July 16, 2005

Drug addiction rampant in Koh Kong

By Joshua Kraemer and Sam Rith

Yama addiction in Koh Kong province is growing so quickly that officials fear widespread social and economic breakdown.

In some areas, an estimated three-quarters of fisherman rely on the drug to get through work, and use is rapidly increasing in other parts of the population.

Hou Thy, villge chief of Phum Pe in Pack Khlang commune, said that 70 to 80 percent of fishermen in his village use the drug, and 50 percent of all the village's residents are addicted to the amphetamine.

"Their bosses put yama in the water and offer them [the fishermen] to drink. It affects the peoples' health and security in the village. It causes a lot of robberies, and people are killing each other," said Thy.

Yama has the short-term effects of creating feelings of intense energy and suppressing sleep and hunger, which boosts productivity among fishermen. The long-term effects, however, include violent or unpredictable behavior, schizophrenia and psychosis.

There are no formal studies documenting the use of yama among fishermen, but anecdotal evidence suggests the drug has become alarmingly popular in Koh Kong.

"I used yama for six years when I was a crab fisherman," said Ngean Hong, 39, of Phum Pe village. "When I used yama, I had power like an elephant. But on days that I did not use yama, I was tired like an ant. I smoked seven to eight tablets a day."

"There were 30 people in my crab fishing group [and] they all used the drug," said Hong. "I bought it from the boat owner [and] if I did not use the drug, the boat owner would not rent the boat to me and my group would kick me off."

"After I stopped using the drug, I had to change my career from crab fisherman to carpenter," he said.

In Koh Kong, yama pills sell for around 6,000 riel each, a price that can quickly consume the income of a fisherman and his family.

Hong said the strain that his addiction placed on his marriage and on the health of his family was too much to bear.

"When I used yama, my wife and my children had no rice to eat and had no house to live in. Gradually, my family suffered more and more, so I decided to stop using the drug," Hong said.

Hong is one of the fortunate few fishermen who have kicked the habit, but ADHOC human rights activist Chhang Cheang fears a widespread deterioration of the family unit throughout Koh Kong if the drug use trend continues.

Cheang works directly with addicted fishermen in Pack Khlang commune, a 10 minute boat ride from the provincial capital of Koh Kong. He estimated that between 60 and 70 percent of the local residents were using yama, mostly fishermen over the age of 15.

The sociological effects of yama addiction can be severe, and the spiraling trend among fishermen is not unique to Koh Kong.

"There is a direct link between poverty and drug use," said Graham Shaw, programme officer at the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

"People just above the poverty line often think that they can take a drug and work more efficiently and make more money, however, there is a knock-on effect, and as the addiction worsens they will not be able to function as normal human beings," Shaw said.

"They become unable to work and generate income because of the cost of the drug, and in the end, it impacts the family and community, causing them to fall below the poverty line," he said.

Shaw said that Cambodian provinces bordering Thailand have had the most chronic drug use and trafficking problems because of their proximity to trade routes.

"People working in the fishing industry in border areas are at even greater risk [of drug abuse] because they have easy access to their contacts in Thailand," Shaw said.

In a report on drug use and trafficking released by the Center for Social Development (CSD) in August 2004, the second deputy governor Chea Him described Koh Kong as the province most effected by drug use.

"Most victims are fishermen workers because they need to use the drug to be able to endure the heavy work," Chea said.

Cheang believes the only hope for the fishermen of Koh Kong lies in the hands of the government.

"If there is no intervention from top provincial officials, everyone, including youngsters and elders in the communes, will become addicted in the next few years. Village and commune chiefs have never walked around and looked at the situation firsthand," Cheang said.

Lim Shy, a 63-year-old resident who lives in Phum Bei in Pack Klang, said that yama addiction extends beyond just fishermen.

"Right now, it is very difficult to survive, because my son goes fishing just to buy more yama," Lim said. "Phum Bei is full of people using and selling the drug. Not only fisherman use it, but also many other people in the village."

Thy said he had reported the yama crisis to the district chief, and that the district chief had reported to the provincial governor.

On July 11, a deputy governor of Koh Kong said authorities had arrested a man identified as only Ngov, his wife, and his mother for the possession of 30 yama tablets.

"We just cracked down on the biggest drug seller last night in Pack Klang," In Sokhom said. "Ngov had only 30 tablets last night due to the fact that he is sick and cannot import more drugs to sell. Since June we have cracked down on seven other drug dealers."

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