Fri, Dec 05, 2014 - Page 9 News List

Searching for jade in Myanmar, mine workers find misery

Human rights activists say that Chinese businesspeople, Kachin rebels and the Burmese government are complicit in a web of illegal trade in gems and drugs that is causing a crisis of addiction in the nation’s north

By Dan Levin  /  NY Times News Service, MYITKYINA, Myanmar

Illustration: Mountain People

At 16, the gem trader’s son set out for the jade mines to seek his fortune in the precious stone that China craves. However, a month in, Sang Aung Bau Hkum was feeding his own addiction: heroin, the drug of choice among the men who work the bleak terrain of gouged earthen pits, shared needles and dwindling hope in the jungles of northern Myanmar.

Three years later, he finally found what he had come for: a jade rock “as green as a summer leaf.” He spent some of the US$6,000 that a Chinese trader paid him for the stone to pay for a motorcycle, a cellphone and gambling.

“The rest disappeared into my veins,” Bau Hkum said, tapping the crook in his left arm as dozens of other gaunt miners in varying states of withdrawal passed the time at a rudimentary rehabilitation clinic.

“The Chinese bosses know we are addicted to heroin, but they don’t care. Their minds are filled with jade,” he said.

Bau Hkum, now 24, is just one face of a trade — like conflict diamonds in Africa — that is turning good fortune into misery.

Driven by an insatiable demand from the growing Chinese middle class, Myanmar’s jade industry is booming and should be showering the nation — one of the world’s poorest — with unprecedented prosperity. Instead, much of the wealth it generates remains in control of elite members of the Burmese military, the rebel leaders fighting them for autonomy and the Chinese financiers with whom both sides collude to smuggle billions of US dollars’ worth of the gem into China, according to jade miners, mining companies and international human rights groups.

Such rampant corruption has not only robbed Myanmar’s government of billions in tax revenue for rebuilding after decades of military rule, it has also helped finance a bloody ethnic conflict and unleashed an epidemic of heroin use and HIV infection among the Kachin minority who work the mines.

The drug and jade trades have become a toxic mix, with heroin — made from opium poppies that long ago turned Myanmar into a top producer of illicit drugs — keeping a pliant workforce toiling in harsh conditions as Burmese authorities and Chinese businesspeople turn a blind eye.

While Myanmar is experimenting with democratic governance after nearly 50 years of military rule, its handling of the jade industry has become a test of the new civilian leaders and their commitment to supporting human rights and rooting out corruption, as well as an early check on whether they will reject the former junta’s kleptocratic dealings with China.

So far, experts say, they have failed.

Washington is worried enough about the link between jade and violence — and the effect on democratic change — that it kept in place a ban on the gem from Myanmar, even after it suspended almost every other sanction against the nation since a civilian government came to power in 2011. However, critics say the sanctions are useless because China attaches no such conditions.

“The multibillion-dollar jade business should be driving peaceful development in Kachin and Myanmar as a whole,” said Mike Davis from Global Witness, an anticorruption organization. “Instead it is empowering the same elite that brought the country to its knees and poses the biggest threat to peace and democratic reform.”

POVERTY AMID RICHES

The fountainhead of Myanmar’s jade wealth is in the mountains of Kachin State, which is rich in natural resources and poor in just about everything else. The nation’s northernmost territory, Kachin shares a long border with China and is home to the Kachin ethnic group, a largely Christian minority with ambitions to gain autonomy from majority Buddhist Myanmar.

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