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Myanmar suffers from the curse of the Jade Scorpion

27 Sep 2013

The mining of Myanmar's vast jade resources has come under attack from the West with the United States banning the importation of all jadeite from the country. While the Yangon government presents a softer and gentler face to the world a humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding in the country's northern Kachin State. Hidden behind the world's longest running civil war tens of thousands of people are being exploited in hell-like conditions; heroin is being abused on an unprecedented scale creating the world largest HIV infected community and what was once a pristine wilderness is being turned into an environmental nightmare.

Local lore has it that sometime in the 13th century a trader from China's Yunnan Province travelling through what is now the Hpakant region in the Kachin State of northern Myanmar picked up a boulder to balance the load on his mule. When it was broken open, the rock revealed a centre of vivid green material. Since then the Chinese have been captivated by jade and for several centuries the Yunnan government funded many unsuccessful expeditions to establish the origin of this fascinating green gemstone.

It wasn't until 1784 when Emperor Qianlong extended the Chinese border to absorb what is now Northern Myanmar that Chinese miners discovered the source of jadeite and established a trade route that up until World War II, saw enormous quantities of "Imperial Jade" transported to Beijing. Today this trade route ends in Hong Kong, the Western interface with China, where record prices continue to be set for jadeite, an obscure silicate of aluminium, sodium and silicon. Hong Kong auction houses attract the interest of not just jewellery collectors but also movie stars, drug barons and growing numbers of Chinese millionaires all frantically driving the price of Imperial Jade to a level where it now competes with diamonds as the most precious stone in the world and is revered across the East as the Stone of Heaven.

A recent Hong Kong auction set a new record price of HK$106.2 million (US$13 million) for a necklace made of 23 flawless quality jadeite beads, the largest of which measured just 2 centimetres in diameter.

While jadeite deposits are also found in Guatemala, Japan, Russia, Canada and California, Myanmar remains the primary source of top-grade material with the mines of the Kachin State containing the most valuable deposits of jade in the world.

In some of the most inaccessible terrain on the planet, large clearings have been torn through the jungle to reveal the earth so that thousands of labourers can dig the compacted soil and smash apart boulders in a furious hunt for precious green stone. While there are some excavators and jack hammers, most of the work is done with pick and shovel by teams of men who dismantle entire mountains; one stone at a time. The work is dangerous and the environmental legacy of this largely unregulated activity is a brutalised landscape of mountains reduced to rubble. But this pales in comparison to the human cost of this activity and the treatment of Myanmar workers attracted to these mines in the hope that their labour will bring them, and their families, wealth and a better life.

The jade mines of the Hpakant region have been described as a medieval vision of hell, and for the hundreds of thousands of workers lured into the back-breaking work of digging for jadeite, the reality is this is a place of poor fortune, terrible illness and ruined lives.

Dust and disease plague those exposed daily to harsh and unsafe conditions, often forced to work by ruthless and violent overlords. Disappearances and deaths are a common occurrence and serve as a deterrent to anyone who would think of stealing. For most, the futile situation becomes so unbearable that they take solace in the heroin shooting-galleries that exist alongside the lawless mining districts of north-east Myanmar.

For less than the cost of a beer, an injectionist administers the Golden Triangle's purist drug directly into the vein of a miner, with the shooting gallery delivering as many as 800 separate injections from the same dirty needle. Large quantities of heroin are provided by the mine owners who pay their addicted miners with a daily fix from the shooting gallery, which is diligently administered by the injectionist upon the production of the miner's identification card. Some estimate that as many as 500,000 workers in Hpakant are paid this way consuming as much as 10g of pure heroin each day. For most this routine proves to be lethally addictive. Compounding the problem is that the addicts are also having unsafe sex with prostitutes who are forced to work in nearby brothels creating a catastrophic HIV problem.

As many as nine out of ten addict workers in the mining district are HIV positive but few live long enough to develop AIDS as the "Jade Disease" of backbreaking labour, chronic drug addiction and heroin overdose finally takes their lives before this otherwise preventable disease can take hold. Myanmar has the highest rate of HIV infection among drug users in the world and this will continue as long as this terrifying practice exists on such an industrial scale.

The UN and World Health Organization have declared the Myanmar jade mines a disaster zone but are powerless to help as they and NGOs are denied the access that would allow a  flow of humanitarian aid into this region. The Myanmar and Chinese governments, that stand in the way of assistance to the region, deny the extent of the human exploitation that exists solely to support the jade connoisseurship by China and the exploitation of this trade route that ultimately yields billions of dollars each year.

The international community is well aware of the magnitude of this horrific problem and is endeavouring to take steps to curb the distribution of jadeite in world markets. On 7 August this year, US President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order prohibiting the importation into the United States of any jadeite mined or extracted from Myanmar. While this will clearly bring further attention to the issue and dampen demand for Imperial Jade across the West, what is driving this humanitarian disaster is the insatiable appetite for jadeite from the East, especially China.

The mines of Kachin State have unleashed a curse on the people of Myanmar subjecting them to appealing violations of human rights and exposing the land to environmental degradation. The mines also act a source of fuel for a brutal war between the government and the 8,000 strong rebel Kachin Independence Army (KIA) which relies on the jade mines, as well as timber, gold and heroin exports to fund its fight for independence for the remote Kachin state.

Despite a recent ceasefire, there is no genuine end in sight to the 60 year old struggle for control of Kachin State with the rebel KIA well funded through the heroin trade and jade sales to China. Indeed powerful Chinese interests in the region have further complicated the conflict and added to the plight of Kachin's people. The China Power Investment Corporation has so far invested US$20 billion in a dam project that will ultimately generate cheap hydropower for the country's Yunnan Province just across the border. Beijing therefore, has a vested interest in ensuring that prying foreign eyes do not witness its exploitation of Myanmar's natural resources or its people.

Meanwhile the international community is eagerly awaiting permission and assistance in accessing this difficult and remote location to gauge the extent of the humanitarian disaster and to rapidly provide intervention to the thousands of affected persons who have been caught up in this vicious Dickensian nightmare.

As it remakes itself, the government of Myanmar now has the opportunity to lay bare this dark heart and show the world its leadership can exercise values such as compassion, justice and wisdom; the very qualities that jade is said to represent in Confucian teachings. Given the tragic cost of this struggle to the people of Myanmar, the government must work at developing the economic, legislative and social reforms that can act against the inhumane work practices that exist and allow for greater transparency in the way that all resource and energy projects, not just jadeite mining, are regulated, governed and taxed in ways that benefit the people of Myanmar.

Dr Nigel Finch is an Associate Professor at the University of Sydney Business School and a member The Sydney Southeast Asia Centre.

Originally published in the Australian Financial Review