Children play next to pools of acid where displaced villagers produce copper from stolen mine material. The Monywa mine complex, Myanmar's largest, is a joint project between the nation's military and Norinco, a Chinese state-run weapons conglomerate.
Credit: Jonah Kessel

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 Laureate’s siding with a massive military development project over poor villagers has bruised her image — an outcome her camp regarded as inevitable amid her transition from confined icon to lawmaker.

“She’s a politician now,” said Nyan Win, her spokesman and close confidante. “Maybe her reputation has taken some effect.”

Hollowed out

In the case of Ko Ko Aung’s family, the toll on nature and health drains the strength of an already ill and poorly nourished clan of grey-market coppersmiths.

“Bad coughs. Pains in our chests. I don’t even know the names of all these diseases,” Ko Ko Aung says. “But we have sore throats and find it hard to breathe.”

Ko Ko Aung pinches a leafy wad stuffed with betel nut, jams it in his mouth and works his jaw. The rush comes on within seconds. Crimson liquid pools at the corners of his mouth. He looks as if he’s just gnawed the head off a bat.

A gentle narcotic that turns saliva red, betel nut is Myanmar’s preferred pick-me-up. Ko Ko Aung began chewing it to stave off the fatigue of working seven days a week. But he became doubly fond of the stimulant when he realized it masked the taste of acidic dust. “It erases the bitter taste,” he says. “If I don’t chew it, my mouth aches.”

Ko Ko Aung has a fantasy. He would like to become a doctor. But when he announces this out loud, his sisters and a gaggle of neighbors burst into laughter. It sounds absurd coming from a sixth-grade dropout, his legs caked in dirt and palms marred by rubbery callouses.

He tries to talk over their giggling.

“Inside the mine, they spray rocks with acid, the wind blows and the dust gets in our insides,” Ko Ko Aung says. “People here are so unhealthy and I would like to cure them.”

The laughter fades. “He’s right,” says Moe Moe Win, a 22-year-old sister of Ko Ko Aung and mother of two. “This place is filthy. The well water here is so bad that it makes vegetables change color.”

For more than a decade, they have lived among the mine waste piled around their village. Here, they make copper in a forsaken, otherworldly place. Pushed from their land decades ago to make way for the mine, they have constructed wooden shacks, with sagging roofs made of palm fronds, on a dirt plane strewn with caustic mine waste. They are too broke to move, Ko Ko Aung says.

Barefoot kids toddle around pools of liquid treated with acid. Some are put to work by the age of 10 and have wet coughs to show for it. Many try to fulfill mining duties while still attending school up the road. There, they have learned a few English words: teacher, I love you, dog and Justin Bieber.

The government has divided the bleak stretch where the villagers make copper at the mine’s base into an invisible checkerboard of 50-square-meter plots. Each plot rents for $3.50 per year. The land is too contaminated for vegetation. Wind comes in hard, dusty gusts. You yawn, you eat dust.

Generations of misrule

Moe Moe Win recalls the unexplained 2009 death of Ko Htay’s granddaughter who, at the age of four, “turned yellow and kept vomiting until she died. “I can’t tell you what happened. We have no medical knowledge,” she says. “But we all breathe polluted air and sleep around polluted dirt.”

Their father, Ko Htay, believes he is slowly succumbing to the toxins. “My heart, my kidneys, my lungs,” he says, tracing a finger around his concave chest. “All of them are sore.”

Ko Htay speaks through a gummy maw studded with a few stubborn incisors. His 59-year-old body is a skeletal ode to resilience. By the standards of backcountry Myanmar, among the poorest and most isolated places in Southeast Asia, he is an old man.

He got this far by making outlaw coppersmiths of his eight children before they hit puberty. Most are now married off and struggling to nourish kids of their own. Ko Htay is too old to scale waste dunes or outrun security guards. So he adopted Ko Ko Aung, the orphan son of a drifter long dead from liver disease.

He blames generations of misrule in Myanmar for turning him into a sickly, landless man relying on a teenage boy for survival.

Even before 19th-century British colonists invaded “Upper Burma,” as it was then known, Ko Htay’s ancestors farmed 20 acres outside a trading outpost called Monywa. They managed to retain the croplands through a chaotic period following the 1948 English exodus, when the national army fought back bandits and revolutionaries.

By the mid-1960s, Myanmar was settling into the iron military rule that influences its government to this day. Under the banner of socialism, the army began swallowing up privately owned businesses and land en masse. “The army confiscated our farm in 1966 and offered no compensation,” Ko Htay says. “It is now inside the mine’s restricted zone. My ancestral land is now buried under heaps of [mine waste].”

Myanmar is once again undergoing a great upheaval. After five decades of totalitarianism, the nation’s style of rule softened in the last two years into a more internationally palatable system: parliamentary governance under the army’s sway. Western sanctions are fading away. The state has loosened its chokehold on the economy.

But mining remains the military-steered nation’s top foreign cash source after oil and gas ventures. Lacking top-flight mining knowhow, the military shares the lucre with outsiders skilled at extracting Myanmar’s natural bounty. These deals are cash cows for Myanmar’s generals.

Foreign mining entities are currently undertaking $2.3 billion worth of projects inside the resource-rich nation. Much of that cash will go toward extracting copper from the region Ko Ko Aung calls home.

In 1998, the year in which Ko Ko Aung was likely born (he does not know his birth date), the Canada-based mining firm Ivanhoe (now Turquoise Hill Resources) extracted what commodities traders call “grade A cathode copper” from pits behind his village.

In league with Myanmar’s ruling junta, Ivanhoe had embarked on the “Monywa Copper Project.” Though other foreign mining operations had plied these mountains before — namely a Yugoslavian outfit with less advanced techniques — Ivanhoe would pour more than $100 million toward detonating, digging and dissolving their way to the billion-plus tons of copper buried in the region’s hills.

The once-verdant mountains rising above Ko Ko Aung’s village began to shrink. As more and more farms were buried beneath mine waste, more families resorted to looting debris for illicit coppersmithing.

Today, the twin mountains known as Sabetaung and Kyisintaung are reduced to bald craters, squeezed hollow like blackheads. “They get a little smaller every year,” Ko Ko Aung says. “Sabetaung is almost entirely gone.”

China steps in

Squabbles with the junta eventually compelled Ivanhoe to sell off its stake in the mine. China’s Norinco, through a subsidiary called Myanmar Wanbao, stepped in as the junta’s foreign partner in 2009. The company has since vowed to invest nearly $1.4 billion over 30 years to draw out the remaining copper reserves, which will be divided between the government, the military’s chief investment wing and Norinco’s subsidiaries.

Much of Norinco’s share is expected to supply China’s People’s Liberation Army. The metal is used for everything from casing bullets to wiring tanks. But the defense consortium’s clientele network is extensive, and its copper will likely end up scattered around the world.

Norinco produces the world’s most widespread AK-47-style rifle. Its Remington shotgun clone remains popular in the United States. It also manufactures radios, toys and a myriad other products that include copper as well.

But Norinco also has a habit of riling the US federal government. A 1996 sting caught Norinco employees helping smuggle 2,000 assault rifles to US agents posing as mafia. Sales of super-strength steel to an Iranian missile facility brought years of anti-Norinco sanctions beginning in 2003.

Still, anyone can acquire the copper Norinco extracts from the hills behind Ko Ko Aung’s shack. Via forms downloadable from one of its web sites, the defense consortium sells high-purity copper by the slab. Offers below 100 metric tons — market price: over $650,000 — are not accepted.

Drinking drywall

Being thirsty in Ko Ko Aung’s village, Kankone, is not advised. Cups of water from the village wells are as refreshing as a slurp from the ocean. Though visibly clear, the water is a briny mix that makes the tongue recoil.

Even Moe Moe Win, whose family business involves handling rocks dunked in acid, draws the line at drinking from the village well. “It’s not good enough for my kids,” she says. “We send Ko Ko Aung to get water from the monastery two kilometers (1.25 miles) up the road.” Another villager, 30-year-old Kaba Chit, says the water quality went south about 10 years back. “That’s when it turned bitter” he says, “and started giving everyone diarrhea.”

Approached at random, villagers living around the mine spout a litany of grievances against the operation. Among them: controlled detonations that spook livestock and crack temple spires; sore throats and eyes that never seem to heal. The mine has become a catch-all for accusations involving cancer and common rashes, birth defects and infertility — although the villagers’ livelihood, involving metal-laden rock and a dangerous, corrosive acid, could also be the culprit.

But the villagers’ loudest objection by far is that the mine — somehow, at some point — spoiled the water supply.

“It’s not just that the taste is bitter,” says Pyn Nyar Zaw Da, a monk whose temple is frequently rocked by detonations inside the mine. “It’s the crops too,” he says. “Our yields are getting lower and lower. There’s too much waste in the groundwater. How are the villagers supposed to eat?”

Wanbao’s response 

Accustomed to these complaints, Wanbao has rebuttals at the ready. “These claims are untrue,” says Liu Xiaoduan, deputy manager of Wanbao Mining’s operations department. “Water protection is one of the highest goals of our company.”

But unpublished water sampling data, obtained by GlobalPost and analyzed by environmental experts in the US, reinforces what villagers have known for years: The water drawn from many wells outside the mine is repellant.

“Think drinking drywall mixed with water,” says Kendra Zamzow, an environmental geochemist with the Center for Science in Public Participation, a Montana-based non-profit that researches the impact of mines.

According to Wanbao, the mine is an idyllic place where “many visitors are in awe of jumping deer, flocks of geese and various ducks, as well as of the waters teaming with countless varieties of aquatic life” inside the 5,600-acre mining site. The mine’s promotional imagery features dump trucks posed before sunsets, villagers happily bathing beside a waste pile and a duckling symbolically snuggled up to an owl.

But large-scale copper mining is a messy, inherently precarious endeavor. Advanced operations such as Wanbao’s mine spread copper-rich ore over hundreds of acres — called “leach pads” — where stones soak in sulfuric acid. All that prevent toxins from seeping into groundwater are underground sheets of synthetic plastic.

Wanbao insists its water monitoring regimen is exhaustive and legitimized by outside auditors from Singapore. The firm has published stats on acid mist detection and water-monitoring boreholes.

The latest government report, helmed by the globally known dissident-turned-parliamentarian Aung San Suu Kyi, decreed in March that the mine exudes no toxic discharge. But it pushed the mine’s operators to step up environmental protections, offer more jobs to locals and hike payments to farmers forced to evacuate their land for future mine expansions.

When Suu Kyi visited the region in March as the report was released — a mission to tame local anger against the mine — Ko Ko Aung watched her greet villagers from afar. “I waved at her from the acid field,” he says.

To date, the only published analyses of the mining area’s water supplies have been commissioned by either Myanmar’s government or the mine’s foreign operators.

But GlobalPost obtained lab results from samples collected by two Myanmar-based environmental groups: Mandalay’s Seinyaungso and Yangon’s Global Green Group. The groups had sent the results to both Myanmar’s president and Suu Kyi in hopes of convincing authorities of the mine region’s contamination. “We mailed copies to them months ago, said Devi Thant Cin, president of the Global Green Group. “Neither responded.”

The samples suggest the truth about the mine’s environmental degradation floats somewhere between villagers’ loose claims and the mine operators’ stiff denials.

The worst-case scenario — acid leakage into groundwater — appears to be held at bay, says Zamzow, who reviewed the lab results at GlobalPost’s request. Collected in Kankone village, a nearby makeshift mining site and a stream in which liquid mine waste is drained, the water samples all show normal pH levels. “There’s nothing here that indicates acid drainage,” she said.

The chalky, gag-inducing taste, she said, comes from the overwhelming quantity of sulfates in the groundwater. Both the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the World Health Organization warn against drinking water with 250 milligrams of sulfate per liter, and set 500 as a “maximum contaminant level.”

Various samples collected from public wells in Ko Ko Aung’s village indicate sulfate milligram-per-liter counts in excess of these standards : 816, 653 and 451. Labs in Mandalay, where the samples were processed, described the water as “chemically unpotable.”

Drinking water with these sulfate levels isn’t deadly, according to EPA studies. But sulfates are a natural laxative. Diarrhea, a common illness in Kankone village, is a drain on adults already weakened by overwork and malnutrition. Sulfates pose even bigger risks to babies. “I don’t think the water is toxic,” Zamzow says. “But it sure looks like it would make you sick.”

Sulfate-heavy groundwater is common around large-scale mine sites where excavation is deep enough to disturb earth near the aquifer.

“You have to look at the mine’s expansion, how deep it goes and how long it would take water to flow to these wells. With some aquifers, it can take years,” Zamzow says. “But it sounds like the mine is the source of these water problems.” 

“Self-inflicted poisoning”

During four weeks of contact with GlobalPost, Wanbao officials agreed to three different face-to-face interviews: one at the mine, one in Yangon and one in Beijing. All were cancelled at the last minute. Eventually, the Norinco subsidiary would only agree to communicate through e-mail.

In detailing Wanbao’s benevolence, Xiaoduan noted that it had created 2,200 jobs for Myanmar’s citizens, and is now offering jobs to farming families relocated by its massive expansion — at $3.50-per-day, an above-average salary for unskilled labor. He also mentions sponsoring schoolchildren, and building a new community library filled with donated books. “At Wanbao,” he writes, “we care greatly for the wellbeing of the men, women and children who live in our local areas.”

As for the bane of kids from coppersmith families: guards in Wanbao uniforms pursuing them time and time again?

“Myanmar Wanbao never chased down or detained any locals who... just passed through the mine’s outskirts. These are false claims,” Xiaoduan writes. The firm, however, has “asked the assistance of the local government to help in alerting people of the dangers to themselves of entering the mine area.” Mine waste is often laced with heavy metals and dangerous chemicals, posing risks to humans who come in contact with them.

Mu Zaw Oo, an elder brother of Ko Ko Aung who has been nabbed more than once, describes a much more hands-on experience. “We go through three pairs of shoes per year running from them,” he says. Muddy socks are visible through a worn gash in his Chinese-made imitation Chuck Taylors. The going payment for release from jail, the family says, is about $58. “If I have to dive down the mountain,” he says, “I dive.”

The mine’s operators are highly aware of the rogue coppersmiths on the perimeter. Both Ivanhoe and Wanbao have denied a role in their livelihoods: The village coppersmiths are depicted as a tragic nuisance, feeding off 370 acres worth of dregs left behind by a former Yugoslavian operator, RTB Bor, which abandoned the mine site in the 1990s.

The current and former operators — along with Myanmar’s authorities — insist that any water pollution in the mining zone can be blamed on illicit coppersmiths like Ko Ko Aung. “They take raw acid from the leaching heap and process copper ... this is unsafe for health,” Ko Ko Myint, the mine’s environmental affairs manager, recently told the Yangon-based Myanmar Times. “They keep pots of acid near their houses and wells.”

Ivanhoe’s reports describe their trade as “unauthorized, unregulated hand mining ... employing crude and hazardous improvised methods to recover small amounts of residual copper that they sell to middlemen buyers to supplement meager incomes.” Wanbao’s 2012-2013 report laments their “self-inflicted poisoning” and vows to seek “full cooperation with local and national authorities” in relocating these farmers-turned-coppersmiths to uncontaminated farmlands.

“I love my native land,” Ko Ko Aung says, “but I hate staying in this place.” He fears that the caustic dust and acid fumes are draining his youth. “It’s risky,” he says. He dreams of leaving this bleakness behind and starting anew. But his family, landless and dead broke, are trapped in place, he says.

For now, in lieu of evicting these families — blamed for polluting the land, and pitied for polluting their own insides — the government charges them rent to ply a wasteland at the mine’s edge.

But the waste dunes towering over Ko Htay’s acid pits are only growing higher. He suspects their eviction is nigh. “Last time I tried to pay at the township office,” he says, “they waved me off.” Without a farm to till, or pits to extract copper, he fears the worst for his family. “I am too old. But maybe my children could get a job inside the mine.”

A comically oversized, counterfeit Quiksilver trucker cap on Ko Ko Aung’s head obscures his expression under its brim. But it appears that his father’s suggestion has unnerved him.

“The people that built this project, I would rather just drive them out,” says Ko Ko Aung, his teeth stained pomegranate from betel nut. “I can’t do that. But I still think what I do is right and what they do is wrong.”

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