Myanmar: Hell hath no fury like Hpakant

A drug user prepares opium. Here in northern Myanmar men descend into the jade mines to escape poverty. Instead, most end up heroin addicts, and the drug dealers and middlemen get rich.

KACHIN STATE, Myanmar — An ancient Chinese proverb likens jade to the character of men. As the saying goes, “both are sharpened by bitter tools.”

But in the jade mines south of China’s border — a wasteland known as Hpakant in Myanmar — men’s lives are not so much sharpened but shredded to bits.

“Hpakant,” said La Htoi, a 34-year-old jade broker and recovering heroin addict. “That is where Satan slowly called me to hell.”

Even by the standards of Myanmar — infamous for warfare, poverty and oppression — Hpakant is a dark and depraved place. Its once-verdant hills have been ground down into gaping quarries that produce jade of unparalleled quality. By the thousands, men descend into these stadium-sized pits hoping to emerge with an armload of jade, a ticket out of poverty.

But Myanmar’s multi-billion dollar jade industry instead funnels wealth to military-connected elites. Miners’ meager earnings are typically swallowed not only by middlemen but by potent, dirt-cheap heroin, traded with impunity in Hpakant’s bazaars. “You can see heroin sold on the roadside there like vegetables,” La Htoi said.

Myanmar, formerly titled Burma, has in a few short years rehabbed its image dramatically. Until recently a scorned backwater, Myanmar now takes in more than a million tourists each year. Most seek glimpses of its shimmering Buddhist temples and mold-eaten architecture left behind by the British Empire.

The nation is undergoing a long-awaited transformation. After five decades of totalitarian military rule, its generals formed a partially elected parliament in 2011 and promised to build a freer, less exploitative society.

There is cause for hope: The police state is partially dismantled, Western sanctions are melting away and the president promises to forge peace with the dozen-plus guerrilla armies controlling the borderlands — including the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, which vies for control of Hpakant’s jade.

The White House has helped goad on the world’s hope for thrilling change in Myanmar. “Now you can see it. You can taste freedom,” US President Barack Obama said in a historic 2012 speech in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. The nation, Obama said, has a “remarkable opportunity ... to pursue peace where conflicts still linger, including in Kachin State.”

But Hpakant has emerged as a crucial test case in a country being branded by leaders as “The New Myanmar.” The nation’s future will be determined by whether the generals will stop hoarding jade fortunes and instead use Myanmar’s natural bounty to rebuild a broken society.

For now, the view from Hpakant — a world away from touristed golden pagodas — hardly evokes a nation on the mend. It has more in common with anarchic scenes from West Africa’s diamond wars. It is Myanmar’s most blighted corner, a grim vortex of poverty, disease and de-facto legalized heroin.

Moreover, Hpakant is symbolic of the military misrule that still stunts much of the country. Despite good pronouncements from Myanmar, Hpakant is one of its many places — such as ruby mines, oil fields and army-run plantations — where life remains stubbornly unchanged, a quarantined no-go zone where a powerful few extract lucre at the expense of the masses.

Even as Obama and other heads of state have arrived in Myanmar to make amends with its leaders, the military waged open warfare against the separatist KIA for control of the jade mines. Hundreds died in the struggle and some 100,000 were forced to flee their homes.

Hpakant’s human costs are immeasurable. Sizing up the profits reaped from the secretive jade industry isn’t much easier. A recent analysis by Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation values the industry at somewhere between $6 and $8 billion — as much as 15 percent of Myanmar’s GDP.

Only a fraction of that fortune ends up in legitimate government coffers. Most of it lands in the bank accounts of generals, ex-generals and their cronies — and, to a lesser extent, the KIA. That leaves a pittance to fund the schools, hospitals and paved roads that Myanmar so desperately needs. It is doubly tragic that the jade mines, a source of extreme wealth, lie within a border region called Kachin State where electricity is scarce and malnutrition is common.

The security forces profit not only from the jade trade, but also from ancillary businesses: open-air drug-shooting galleries in the markets and brothels, constructed of plastic sheeting and bamboo. All of these are overseen by the authorities and permitted to operate with requisite bribes.

Meanwhile, HIV flourishes along with addiction and fatal ignorance. “We’d heard of AIDS but didn’t think you could get it from needles,” said La Htoi, who contracted HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, several years ago in Hpakant. “We just thought it was transmitted by sex with prostitutes.”

Forbidden mines

For any enterprise with the capital, connections and stomach to invest in Hpakant, the profit potential is staggering. According to the Harvard report, producing a ton of jade costs less than $500 on average. Sold at government auction in Myanmar’s capital of Naypyidaw, that same ton sells for $126,000.

Myanmar’s jade industry, however, is notoriously difficult to crack.

Hpakant is largely forbidden to foreigners, with the general exception of Chinese businessmen cooperating with the government. It is separated from the nearest provincial capital, Myitkyina, by 100 miles of rutted dirt roads. Passage is regulated by dozens of checkpoints manned by armed guards. Incoming travelers fear relieving themselves on roadsides studded with land mines.

Only about half of the jade extracted in Myanmar is sold on open, taxable markets, according to the Harvard study, led by Southeast Asia-focused economist David Dapice; an estimated 43,000 tons were extracted in 2011, but 21,000 tons vanished into the black market — most of it across the border into China.

This would mean the larger part of Myanmar’s multibillion-dollar jade profits — likely enough to feed, clothe and educate the nation’s 60 million people — is hoarded by a small elite. (Current government budgets for health care and education combined add up to only $1.1 billion.) Business as usual, Dapice wrote in the Harvard report, means that “mineral wealth will continue to be a source of conflict and its value will continue to enrich a few rather than strengthen the entire nation.”

Among the enriched few is tycoon Yup Zau Hkawng, head of Jadeland, Kachin State’s largest locally owned jade firm. His appearance belies his fortunes. Unlike much of Myanmar high society, he is not dripping with jewels; the gems magnate favors L.L. Bean-style lumberjack shirts and a whiskery beard.

Yup Zau Hkawng is an outlier in an industry dominated by military figures and their Chinese partners. He is Kachin, a Christianized, mountain-dwelling minority. The Kachin have long been at odds with the central government controlled by the nation's dominant ethnic group: the Burmese, who are Buddhists. Many of Kachin State’s 1.2 million inhabitants look up to Yup Zau Hkawng as a rare icon of success in a region where few men ever make it off the farm or out of the quarries.

“If you’re an ethnic businessman, it’s hard to fend off the foreigners with tight government connections,” Yup Zau Hkawng said. “Jade is our ancestral business. Yet locals don’t enjoy any of the fruits of this business. It’s unfair that Kachin suffer when cronies get rich.”

Yup Zaw Hkawng, while lacking the KIA’s revolutionary zeal, shares much of their ethos — namely that Kachin State’s precious resources must benefit the native people. This guerrilla militia, borne of battalions trained by the US to fight in World War II, has battled for control of Kachin State since the 1960s. Large swaths of Kachin State, a region rich in timber and gold as well as jade, are controlled by the KIA, which acts as the governing authority in areas abutting the Chinese border.

“We’re also in the jade business, gold mining, logging and collecting tax on the borders,” said Dau Hka, a senior official with the Kachin Independence Organization, the KIA’s political wing.

The 2011-2013 battle between the KIA and the central state over Hpakant’s jade, Dau Hka said, was proof that government vows to settle old disputes are insincere. “On TV, you’ll hear about economic and social betterment,” he said. “But they’re still creating conflicts to expand military power.”

Recent conflict over the mines resulted from the disintegration of a cease-fire agreement, enacted in the mid-1990s, that allowed the KIA and the central state to share the jade wealth. In effect, Dapice wrote, those pacts “did little more than allow the military to continue extracting while letting ethnic militias to do the same but with a lower share.”

Yup Zau Hkawng — whose own business was disrupted by the fighting — has in recent years positioned himself as a mediator in this bitter feud. In 2013, the KIA and the government agreed to ongoing peace negotiations where the jade tycoon has been a regular presence. “We need to work with the government for the development of our state,” he said. “We want to see roads, schools, hospitals. Not support for armies and cronies.”

Until this shift takes place, he said, the post-sanctions wave of international conglomerates flooding into Myanmar has no place in jade country. “During the sanctions era, the international community said they didn’t like crony action. Yet now they’re partners with them,” he said. “When they come in, they’ll just destroy our land for their own benefit. Not ours.”

But the potential for more violence will remain, Dau Hka said, until the government loosens its grip on terrain rightfully owned by the Kachin. “On the negotiating table, it’s a fashion show. Everything is made to seem pretty,” he said. “On the ground, it’s an action show. And it’s horrible.”

A cheap and crazy high

The Kachin call them “mouse droppings”: brown, goopy pellets of unprocessed opium. Unassuming in appearance, the substance is endowed with the power to evaporate heartache and turn men — in their minds, at least — into great philosophers.

Once prevalent from Hong Kong to New York, opium dens are now largely resigned to history. But in Kachin State, they persist. In an underground opium den visited by GlobalPost, men gathered to while away the afternoon. One cheerfully introduced himself as an army doctor. Outside, women boiled rice over charcoal embers and children made a game of tossing stones at ducklings.

The smoking session was preceded by patient ritual. The mouse droppings were placed in a brass spoon, warmed over a gas stove and melted into a motor oil-like sludge. The goop was stirred vigorously with chopsticks moving in concentric circles. It was then poured over dried, brown banana bark — shredded to a cotton candy consistency — and packed into bamboo water bongs, called ka-booms.

“This is much gentler than heroin,” said a 40-something smoker. He wrapped his mouth around the bong’s rim and sucked. The ka-boom gurgled noisily. “Kachin have done this for centuries. But some guys, especially young guys, they’re not patient like us. They want a cheap and crazy high.”

It was in an opium den like this where Gum Seng Li first nurtured the addiction that would nearly kill him. The son of a KIA operative-turned-jade miner, now 28, dabbled with the ka-boom for years before moving to Hpakant to learn the family jade business.

“When I was on my way to Hpakant, I thought I’d become a big boss. I’d get so rich off jade that college kids would have to work for me,” said Gum Seng Li, a short man clad in a ripped Tommy Hilfiger polo and a plaid sarong. “I’d even teach myself English and learn computers.”

Those dreams quickly disintegrated in the drug bazaars of Hpakant, where heroin is all but legalized. “Everyone in Hpakant is on No. 4,” he said, using slang for refined heroin. “It’s kind of weird when you’re the only one with a ka-boom and everyone else has needles. I thought they were all junkies.”

“I wasn’t long before I was just like them,” he said. “I was a slave, always needing money. Working at all hours to get more jade. It finally got so bad my lips would move but I couldn’t hear what came out. I was dying.”

Myanmar is the world’s second-largest producer of opium, the sap of poppies and heroin’s key ingredient. The trade flourishes in Shan State, a poppy heartland adjacent to Kachin State. Opium is vital in financing several of the nation’s dozen-plus armed groups that occupy semi-lawless borderlands.

Yet in most of Myanmar — namely the central plains and southern delta under firm government control — drug use is highly criminalized. Possession of an ounce of pot brings a 10-years-to-life charge; trafficking heroin is punishable by death.

These rules are flouted in Hpakant. Many of the dozen-plus addicts and jade miners interviewed by GlobalPost estimated that well over half of Hpakant’s miners are routine heroin users. Several said finding a totally drug-free miner is extremely difficult.

According to multiple sources, including a recently retired, high-ranking Myanmar narcotics intelligence officer, Hpakant’s heroin markets are enabled by a police force that reaps kickbacks from dealers and traffickers. “If [a senior officer] works just one year in Hpakant,” the former agent said, “[he'll] have enough money for a BMW and three concubines.”

“I never felt fear of police,” Gum Seng Li said. “Countless times I did heroin with the police. They’re users too.”

The heroin bazaars

Hpakant’s drug bazaars are little more than ramshackle lean-tos constructed of planks and bamboo stakes, with roofs made of dried leaves or flimsy plastic sheets. Most shops deal heroin, opium or meth. Others sell sex with prostitutes — condoms optional — for roughly $5.

Drugs are sold in units of measurement unique to Myanmar’s heroin trade. A short straw packed with one needle’s worth of heroin sells for as little as $1. A metal canister of Thai herbal medicine — almost always a brand called “Five Pagodas” — is emptied out, filled with a marble-sized amount of heroin and sold for $10. This unit is called a “taing na lone” in Myanmar.

Dealers put six “taing na lone” units in a “penicillin,” a glass jar meant to hold antibiotics, and sell it for $50. The mother lode is a “soap cup,” a plastic casing the size of a bar of soap that contains about 25 penicillins. A typical addict will shoot up somewhere between a “taing na lone” and half a “penicillin” in one day; veteran users can withstand an entire penicillin bottle or more within 24 hours.

Needle sharing is obscenely common in Hpakant. “It’s not unusual for eight guys to share a single needle,” said Marip, a former addict from Hpakant. “If someone is in a rush, he’ll just pick up a random needle off the ground.” Several addicts told GlobalPost it is widely believed that urinating on a needle before injection cleanses it of AIDS.

HIV is known to be rife in Hpakant. But given its isolation and lawlessness, there are no hard figures on prevalence of the virus. In Myitkyina, Kachin State’s largest city, the United Nations estimates that nearly one-third of injecting drug users are afflicted with the disease. Hpakant’s percentage is widely assumed to be much higher.

A single Western NGO — which declined to be named for fear of losing government-sponsored access — is believed to be Hpakant’s sole supplier of clean needles. Its staff told GlobalPost that they truck in millions of clean needles per year. Spent needles are collected by the bucketful and burned each day. “Miners are starting to realize the danger of HIV,” said Khun Hpaung, a 38-year-old jade miner and recovering addict. “They’re trying to become little HIV experts.”

La Htoi, the Hpakant jade broker, was diagnosed with HIV in 2009. “I didn’t realize I was gravely ill until I quit heroin,” he said. He suspects he carried the virus for years, sharing needles all the while, as heroin masked its telltale symptoms. “When I found out, I felt I was worthless, a nothing, and that Satan had tricked me and blurred my mind,” he said. “A breeze could have knocked me over.”

Jade wars

The vast majority of miners are “yemase,” self-employed men who scramble into deep quarries to pick through rubble unearthed by large firms’ heavy machines. They haul their findings up the steep slopes and sell them to middlemen, who pay out a fraction of their estimated value in cash. Although thousands of yemase descend into the mine each day, their work is technically illegal, as it essentially amounts to stealing from the concessions doled out to the mining firms.

The occupational hazards for yemase include beatings by security forces and landslides that routinely bury miners alive. Still, they are drawn by the remote possibility of finding a jade boulder worth more than $50,000 — a life-changing sum in regions where most survive on less than $2 per day.

“The stone that makes you a millionaire and the stone that makes you nothing can look the same from the outside,” said Myo Aung, a 24-year-old jade miner. “Think of it as a badly dressed girl. She’s unpolished and unwashed. It takes a person with expertise to fix her up. But we don’t have the know-how.”

This imbalance in expertise leaves uneducated miners vulnerable to exploitation by middlemen who deliver jade to markets in Myanmar and China. “Once I found a stone worth $100,000,” said Mala, 25, a miner with Elvis hair and a body shriveled by addiction. Almost all of the proceeds went to a broker, he said. His heroin dealers did well too. “The rest went into my arms,” he said.

Despite graphic accounts from the 2011-2013 jade mine wars — a battle waged with bullets and mortar rounds — some yemase contend that their livelihoods improved after the KIA seized control of several mines from the government.

“Once the bullets stopped flying, we were thrilled. They chased the soldiers out and broke up some of the monopolies. With the KIA’s approval, you could just ignore the ‘No Trespassing’ sign and go in,” Myo Aung said. “I made enough money to start a little business. We bought new 16-pound hammers. And we hired a guy with a whistle to sit at the top and alert us to incoming trucks, which can cause avalanches that crush your head.”

But no matter who rules Hpakant, there are always higher forces seeking a cut of miners’ success. Before a 17-year heroin addiction finally left him bedridden and nearly dead, Marip, 43, was a KIA tax collector in Hpakant who extracted payment from small jade and gold enterprises as well as small shops.

“We demanded 10 percent of their earnings. Just like in the Bible,” said Marip, who is now clean and living in Myitkyina. “My job was to keep my ears open. See who’s making money. Sometimes you have to threaten them. Maybe ask if they’d like a bomb in their shop.”

“Everyone always paid up,” Marip said. “This is the land of two governments.”

Relapse

A mess of inky scribbles runs down the arm of Lat, an 18-year-old miner-turned-addict. He acquired his tattoo in a drugged-out haze. “It was supposed to be a guitar, a cross, a skull and a woman holding an axe. Like modern art,” he said. “But it’s unfinished because the tattoo artist overdosed.”

In the span of a few short years, Lat progressed from eating raw opium sludge to injecting heroin every night in a cemetery, a hideaway most non-addicts avoid for fear of phantoms. He bottomed out after failing to perform in the mines. His addiction then compelled him to sell off everything of value in his family’s home.

“First I sold our motorbike. Then our TV. At the end, I was bringing plates and spoons to my dealer,” Lat said. “My mother just sits in our empty house and cries all day.”

The lucky addicts end up like Lat: escaping heroin-fueled mines before addiction takes their lives. Like many, he did not quit by choice. He was simply dead broke.

Those who quit out of poverty or sheer self-preservation have to face the same initial trial: overcoming the horrors of withdrawal. “I was shitting blood,” said Marip, who got clean seven years ago. “My bones hurt and my heart was barely pumping. But I would still say withdrawal is the easy part. The hard part is altering your life and your soul.”

Once clean and ready to regain a livelihood, ex-addicts in Kachin State reemerge into a bleak economy. It is hard enough to find work in Myanmar, one of Southeast Asia’s poorest nations. It is doubly hard to make a living in Kachin State, one of its more destitute regions.

The jade industry is a primary employer in Kachin — meaning recovering addicts seeking work are akin to recovering alcoholics in a town where tending bar is the only available job.

Myo Aung, who fled Hpakant to Myitkyina six months ago to kick heroin, is among the thousands of Kachin who face this dilemma. He has seen firsthand how the jade mines chew up lives. The allure of overnight riches drew him into Hpakant. He was regurgitated even poorer, legs lacerated from his time in the quarries, his once-strong arms withered and discolored with track marks.

He is already thinking of descending back into Hpakant’s quarries before the springtime monsoons.

“I don’t know yet how I’ll resist the urge to go back to the syringe,” he said. “I guess I’ll read the Bible.”

This article was edited by David Case. Follow him on Twitter @DCaseGP.