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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 war

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

were once glorified as “fierce little men” and “killers of north Burma” by the US military, which armed and trained Kachin battalions to resist World War II-era Japanese invasion. Those regiments were prototypes for the KIA.

Shimmering Buddhist pagodas, perhaps Myanmar’s most recognizable icons, are scarce here. The Kachin instead gather in modest chapels built of stone and bamboo. They were Christianized by 19th-century American missionaries who are now revered as pale-faced messengers of God. Kachin parents often bestow their sons with Biblical names such as “James” or “Samson.”

For many Kachin there is an existential fear, handed down through generations, of seeing their faith, language and natural bounty devoured by the central state run by Myanmar’s dominant ethnicity: the Burmese, who are largely Buddhist.

“They have a caste system like in India and little patience for us grassroots people,” said Dau Hka, a senior official with the Kachin Independence Organization, the KIA’s political wing. “They want to control our land and the people living here. And they’re always pushing for more dominance.”

A culture of suspicion can lead Kachin to see the central government's fingerprints on anything that afflicts their society. Distrust is reinforced by past military campaigns to subjugate ethnic territories through a “four cuts” strategy: cutting their food, intelligence, cash and recruits — and all the while torching villages, violating women and dragooning men to carry supplies to the next targeted village.

For most Kachin, embracing a conspiracy theory about weaponized heroin isn’t much of a leap — particularly for a society traumatized by so many young, self-inflicted deaths.

For decades, Dau Hka said, the primary threat to Kachin State’s future had come from the government’s gun barrels.

But today, he conceded, bullets and land mines are superseded by a greater menace: the needle.

“At this point, we believe the secondary enemy is the army. Our first enemy is opium,” Dau Hka said. “It’s a powerful tool in this cold war.” (Opium is the key raw material in heroin.)

Heroin from classrooms to quarries

Myitkyina University is meant to prepare young Kachin to lead and prosper. The student body is instead drowning in heroin, said Brang Joi, a 20-year-old math major. “We must have one of the most heroin-addicted universities in the world,” he said.

Male students wear long sleeves to conceal their scabby arms; beauty-conscious young women inject in the creases behind their knees. “If you go to pee in the bushes by the football pitch, you have to dodge needles,” Brang Joi said. “In the off-campus dorms, they’re openly shooting up.”

After watching classmates shrivel up and drop out, Brang Joi staged a counteroffensive. In August he arrived on campus with homemade pamphlets comparing addiction to slavery and likening heroin to the biblical forbidden apple. The university promptly banned the pamphlets and threatened to report him to the government.

“I told them, ‘Even the president says all citizens must participate in the war on drugs,’” Brang Joi said. “‘So why are you stopping me?’”

The experience only hardened his belief in a grand conspiracy against the Kachin. “To me, letting heroin spread is a form of genocide. They can fight us outright and waste money and soldiers’ lives,” he said. “Or they can let drugs destroy us at our core, our education system, for free.”

At least in Myitkyina, drugs are traded in the shady groves and dim tea shops. In the semi-lawless jade country to the east, drugs are sold with a brazen impunity that recalls “Hamsterdam,” the fictional Baltimore ghetto in HBO’s “The Wire” where police de-facto legalized heroin.

There is no more blighted place in Myanmar — or perhaps Southeast Asia — than the jade mecca of Hpakant. “In Hpakant, you can purchase and shoot up freely,” said Khun Hpaung, a 38-year-old jade miner and recovering addict. Around the mines, shopkeepers sell heroin like common wares such as soap or chicken, he said. “There’s nothing hidden about it. The police are all around. Just watching.”

Hpakant is a bleak moonscape forbidden to practically all foreigners. (Chinese traders are an exception.) It is separated from Myitkyina by 100 miles of mostly dirt paths lined with checkpoints manned by various armed security forces. Wars to control passage into Hpakant have strewn the roadsides with land mines and, as recently