Burma miners pay for fatal pleasures: Workers harvesting rubies, sapphires and jade seek solace in heroin-shooting galleries, where the Aids virus is now rife, writes Tim McGirk in Mandalay

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The Independent Online
THEIR muscles sore from digging for rubies and chunks of jade, the miners of Burma often relax with the services of a 'professional injectionist'. For less than the cost of a beer, the injectionist shoots them up with pure heroin.

'These injectionists are very good,' said Nan Naung Yaw, 34, an ex-addict. 'Even in the dark they can find your vein.' He has a tattoo of three crossed daggers on his forearm and wears a gold ring with a jade stone fit for a Chinese emperor.

Not only are the miners getting a fix of the Golden Triangle's purest drug, but often the injectionists are also infecting clients with HIV by using dirty needles. As one international drug expert said: 'Burma has the highest rate of Aids virus among drug-users in the world.' Tests among Burmese drug addicts in the mining districts showed that nine out of ten are HIV-positive.

In the lawless mining towns of Mogok and Phakant, there are dozens of heroin-shooting galleries, each with a steady stream of junkies. The injectionist dissolves the heroin with water in a dish and loads up his syringe. 'After each jab, he leaves the needle in the dish, ready for the next customer. I've seen him use the same filthy needle on 25, maybe 30 men,' said Nan Naung Yaw.

Foreigners are discouraged by the military junta from visiting the jungly hills of north-east Burma, where the finest rubies, sapphires and jade in the world are found. Several Burmese compare the mining centres to the gold rush towns of the American west. As one geologist said: 'There are bars, brothels and guns. You see a lot of dead bodies in the river. There's no law. If a mine boss finds out his labourer has been stealing, he's a dead man. Or, if the soldiers find anyone prospecting illegally in the hills, they'll kill him and pocket his gems.'

Many of the dead were also junkies. The purity of the heroin makes it lethally addictive. Heroin sold on the London streets has been cut many times, while the Burmese No 4 or Double Uoglobe is 90 per cent pure. In the mining towns, it costs only 50 kyats (around 30 pence) a fix. The government is party to blame for the junkie's dangerous habit of sharing needles; in a misguided attempt to halt the rise in heroin addiction, only doctors are allowed to possess syringes.

The gemfields are also on the main transit route for drugs coming from the Golden Triangle, the corner of Burma, Laos and Thailand which produces much of the world's heroin. According to the US Drug Enforcement Administration, Burma last year harvested more than 2,500 tons of raw opium for heroin. Much of the Burmese heroin passes through the mining towns en route to Mandalay, an important transit point for smuggling heroin out through China or India.

Although it is a big heroin producer, Burma only recently became a consumer. 'Before, you didn't have a heroin problem. The men would smoke a few pipes of opium, but the heroin was always cooked in laboratories up by the border and moved abroad,' explained one international aid expert. 'More of the heroin is staying in Burma now.' Young Burmese men no longer frequent the traditional opium dens; they crave the kick of the heroin- shooting galleries.

The military junta, which has kept Burma cut off from the outside world for nearly 30 years, is only now beginning to admit that Aids is spreading rapidly inside the country. News of the disease has yet to reach many miners, who are often illiterate. They spend countless hours in muddy pits sifting for gems. It is exhausting, dangerous work, and few miners last long once they become junkies. 'They get so they don't eat. They don't care about anything. I've seen them sprawled in the alleys with maggots crawling in their open sores,' said David Yone Moe, who runs the country's most successful drug re habilitation programme.

In a country devoutly Buddhist, David Yone Moe is a Baptist who loves Elvis second only to Jesus. He and his reformed drug-addicts travel often up to the mines and even into the Golden Triangle warning of heroin's perils. A former junkie himself, David Yone Moe rides in a large US van with 'Never Say Die' written on the rear window. 'Heroin was killing me. Doctors gave me a week to live, and my mother had already bought my casket,' he said. 'Then I found Jesus.'

Many of his converts, whom he calls the Young Crusaders, are heroin addicts he won over while preaching in the mining towns. 'I've given sermons to thousands of people in the mines. Up there money is like a vegetable. It's everywhere. And so is heroin.'

(Photograph omitted)