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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.

Opium cooking kachin myanmar
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. (Jonah M. Kessel/GlobalPost)

Myanmar: Hell hath no fury like Hpakant

Men seek to escape poverty in the jade mines. Instead, it’s the drug dealers and middlemen who 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