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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.

Kachin heroin user opium warfare
A young ethnic Kachin addict shoots heroin into his arm. Many Kachin leaders accuse the government of "ethnic cleansing" via drugs. "In the lower part of Myanmar, they don’t let drugs circulate. If they did, their generations would also be lost — just like ours." (Jonah M. Kessel/GlobalPost)

Opium war

In mountainous Kachin, the government stands accused of 'genocide' by heroin.

MYITKYINA, Myanmar — It was nearly 10 a.m. in Myitkyina, Myanmar’s northernmost provincial capital. On the rutted streets below, church hymns competed with the clamor of roosters and motorbikes. The singing beckoned townsfolk dressed in their finest Sunday sarongs to join a Baptist service.

But in the attic of a house overlooking the chapel, two addicts had found their own sanctuary.

Their heroin was already half gone.

Naw Mai and Lah San had scored a $55 canister around dawn and shot up much of it before breakfast. Ugly constellations of needle wounds dotted their forearms, which they concealed under long sleeves.

Their discretion was futile. Everything about them screamed addiction. The scratching. Ropey limbs. Eyes shellacked with yellow film.

The attic — a hideaway in the home of relatives attending church — was barren except for a few plastic mats and a stack of VHS tapes. Though curtains were drawn, sunbeams shone through the gauzy fabric. Clapboard walls muffled the voice of the nearby pastor, who sermonized into a cheap amplifier.

Naw Mai, 30, stripped to the waist and used his shirt as a tourniquet. A tattoo ran the length of his back: a crudely inked Jesus Christ cradling a lamb.

He fished out the heroin — a flaky white powder flecked with pastel orange, a sign of shoddy chemical refinement. He mixed it with saline, drew it into a syringe’s plunger and held the needle aloft for inspection. The substance glowed tangerine in the light.

“I’ve been hooked since I was 15,” said Lah San, now in his late 20s. “For my generation, if you don’t do drugs, you’re not hip. You see kids hanging in tea shops, trying to look cool by nodding off and dropping their cigarettes.”

The two men injected each other wordlessly. It was pleasureless and procedural. Wind tousled the curtains and, from the chapel beyond, the sound of a female choir singing “hallelujah” drifted in with the chill breeze. The men sucked down cigarettes and hummed along weakly.

“I no longer feel euphoria from this stuff,” Naw Mai said. “It’s just a daily routine to stop the sickness. Our bodies beg for it and we can’t say no.”

“Look at me,” Naw Mai said. His bronze complexion was mottled with black boils. “I exist for one purpose: doing drugs. I don’t own my life. Drugs do.”

The addiction that possesses Naw Mai and Lah San (whose names were altered to protect their identities) is appallingly common in Kachin State, a Christianized region in the Himalayan foothills of Myanmar, the nation formerly titled Burma.

The Kachin Baptist Convention, an influential regional network claiming nearly half a million parishioners, has released a statistic that defies belief. According to the group, roughly 80 percent of Kachin youth are drug addicts. By other estimates, more than half of the students at the local university — the region’s bridge to the future — are addicted. The problem is even more pervasive in bleak mining hamlets to the east.

How did this isolated mountain outpost become one of the world’s most heroin-addled places?

Everyone has a theory.

At one extreme are influential reverends, scholars and officers from the Kachin Independence Army (or KIA) — a guerrilla faction that seeks autonomy for the region’s native inhabitants. They allege the government is allowing heroin to proliferate in Kachin as covert chemical warfare.

The central state, so the theory goes, permits heroin to rot their indigenous society and weaken its powers of resistance — just as the British subdued China in the 19th century by hooking its masses on opium. Authorities denounce this theory as extremist. (Myanmar’s anti-narcotics bureau, the Central Committee for Drug Abuse Control, declined GlobalPost’s repeated requests for comment.)

Sources close to the government suggest that there’s no evidence of a shadowy ethnic cleansing plot. The heroin crisis, they say, is instead driven by a toxic mix of police corruption and official apathy toward an armed and rebellion-prone minority group.

The invisible forces behind Kachin State’s drug woes are hotly debated. Its severity, however, is undeniable. As the world turns its gaze to Myanmar, increasingly seen as an ascendent nation shaking off its dark past, this heroin crisis remains largely ignored.

The “cold war”

There are few corners of Asia where heroin is so pure, cheap and readily available as the Kachin frontier.