Myanmar old guard clings to $10 billion jade empire

Myanmar old guard clings to $10 billion jade empire
Hand-pickers search for jade through rubble dumped by mining companies at a jade mine in Hpakant township, Kachin State.

HPAKANT, Myanmar - Tin Tun picked all night through teetering heaps of rubble to find the palm-sized lump of jade he now holds in his hand. He hopes it will make him a fortune. It's happened before.

"Last year I found a stone worth 50 million kyat," he said, trekking past the craters and slag heaps of this notorious jade-mining region in northwest Myanmar. That's about US$50,000 (S$63,000) - and it was more than enough money for Tin Tun, 38, to buy land and build a house in his home village.

But rare finds by small-time prospectors like Tin Tun pale next to the staggering wealth extracted on an industrial scale by Myanmar's military, the tycoons it helped enrich, and companies linked to the country where most jade ends up: China.

Almost half of all jade sales are "unofficial" - that is, spirited over the border into China with little or no formal taxation. This represents billions of dollars in lost revenues that could be spent on rebuilding a nation shattered by nearly half a century of military dictatorship.

Official statistics confirm these missing billions. Myanmar produced more than 43 million kg of jade in fiscal year 2011/12 (April to March). Even valued at a conservative US$100 per kg, it was worth US$4.3 billion. But official exports of jade that year stood at only US$34 million.

Official Chinese statistics only deepen the mystery. China doesn't publicly report how much jade it imports from Myanmar.

But jade is included in official imports of precious stones and metals, which in 2012 were worth US$293 million - a figure still too small to explain where billions of dollars of Myanmar jade has gone.

Such squandered wealth symbolizes a wider challenge in Myanmar, an impoverished country whose natural resources - including oil, timber and precious metals - have long fueled armed conflicts while enriching only powerful individuals or groups. In a rare visit to the heart of Myanmar's secretive jade-mining industry in Hpakant, Reuters found an anarchic region where soldiers and ethnic rebels clash, and where mainland Chinese traders rub shoulders with heroin-fueled"handpickers" who are routinely buried alive while scavenging for stones.

Myint Aung, Myanmar's Minister of Mines, did not reply to written questions from Reuters about the jade industry's missing millions and social costs.

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