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After decades of human rights abuses, Myanmar's generals have recently freed political prisoners, reduced censorship and held limited elections — prompting countries to lift sanctions. But a year-long GlobalPost investigation has found that protests, violence and cronyism are testing Myanmar's reforms — and tarnishing the reputation of Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

Myanmar’s mine raiders: Living on stolen dirt

Profits and poverty collide on an apocalyptic landscape left behind by a military-owned mine.

KYISINTAUNG MOUNTAIN, Myanmar — When the quarry guards show up, you run like hell.

You drop your sacks of pilfered dirt and scramble down the steep rim of the copper mine. When you reach the base, you keep running, bounding over pools awash in sulfuric acid. Be careful: Plenty of boys before you have tumbled in and snapped limbs.

Do not look back.

Do not stop sprinting until you slip unseen into the village.

These are the rules Ko Ko Aung learned as a child, even before he quit school at the age of 11. He is now a scraggly 15.

He is not yet a man because a man, he explains, can carry four sacks of stolen, crumbled earth down the mountain. “Three sacks use all of my energy,” he says. But he is nimble in his youth. “I know how to run with all my bones.”

“When I climb the hill, I’m only thinking, ‘When are the guards coming after me?’ Even strong men have to stay alert,” Ko Ko Aung says. “If you’re caught, they throw you in a car. They take away your dirt. Then they put you in jail.”

Ko Ko Aung insists he’s not a thief. “I’m only taking dirt,” he says.

But that pebbly mess belongs to the mine’s owner and its operator: Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings, a secretive military investment wing, and Wanbao, a subsidiary of China’s largest state-owned weapons manufacturer.

Each morning, Ko Ko Aung trudges across the treeless moonscape behind his family shack. He scales a high, man-made dune composed of soil scooped out by cranes in the interior and dumped around the periphery by behemoth trucks. The trucks’ tires alone are nearly triple Ko Ko Aung’s height.

To Ko Ko Aung’s family, and hundreds of others living on the mine’s fringe, the rocky soil sustains life. Dug out from the mineral-rich mountain, it is strewn with copper ore.

With 40 days, some sulfuric acid and painstaking effort, they can produce a pile of maroon rocks that twinkle in the light. Fed into a smelter, the pebbles cook into a heavy brick of low-purity copper. It is nasty work. Squatting over stones doused in sulfuric acid singes the nostrils, makes the eyes run hot with stinging tears and slowly gnaws at their health. But only when the villagers sell these bricks for about $40 profit are they able to buy luxuries such as shoes or meat.

“The mine doesn’t even need the dirt. We do,” Ko Ko Aung says. “But they call us thieves. Even though we no longer have our land and no other way to survive.”

What democracy looks like

Ko Ko Aung is an unwitting foot soldier in Myanmar’s great struggle to transform from a despotic state lorded over by generals into a freer society that cedes basic rights to peasants.

A movement initiated by ruling military elite to reinvent the troubled nation as a legit democracy is the subject of global attention, and much hype. In the last year or so, hundreds of political prisoners were freed, the press has been largely uncensored and poor villagers have grown emboldened enough to rally against powerful interests. The democracy champion Aung San Suu Kyi, lionized globally for resisting the generals’ tyranny, has even joined the government as an elected lawmaker.

These liberties have also turned this mining region into an unruly protest zone.

Long-held grievances over the mine’s land confiscations and environmental wreckage have given rise to monk-led rallies. And though they are finally free to openly agitate for the mine’s closure, some of the authorities’ old habits are dying hard. A Nov. 29 raid on protest camps left roughly 100 monks and civilians badly burned by lobbed white phosphorus munitions, a tool of war.

With tensions high, the government of President Thein Sein, a former high-ranking general, dispatched Aung San Suu Kyi to tame local anger through a commission investigating anti-mine grievances.

But in a sign of times changed, the leader best known for her uncompromising resistance to generals’ subjugation has urged villagers’ to patiently tolerate the mine’s environmental damage and trust the military-owned project to eventually pour profits towards repairing the natural habitat.

This trust, however, is widely regarded as unearned. In the eyes of many, the Nobel