Families of Myanmar’s ruling military elite — “major players” in the country’s highly lucrative trade in jade — are becoming richer and richer while the people of Kachin state — where most of jade is mined — are seeing their livelihoods disappear and their landscape turned into a wasteland, a report by Global Witness said Friday ahead of November’s key elections.

A vast wasteland of denuded hills and mountains has been created by jade mining around the once-verdant hinterland of Hpakant
A vast wasteland of denuded hills and mountains has been created by jade mining around the once-verdant hinterland of Hpakant

If  fairly and sustainably managed, the jade industry could transform the fortunes of the Kachin people and help drive development across Myanmar.

Instead, their lives as miners are at risk because of fatally dangerous conditions in the pits.

Anyone  who stands in the way of the guns and machines faces land grabs, intimidation and violence, said the report by the international anti-corruption group.

The relatives of former dictator Than Shwe and other senior government officials were benefiting financially from the sale of jade, which the group estimated at worth some $31 billion in 2014.

This would amount to about half of the country’s official gross domestic product. Official jade exports were worth around $1 billion in the fiscal year 2013-14.

Jade in Myanmar is mostly mined from Kachin state and its licensing system is marked by corruption and cronyism, the report said.

Freelance jade miners collect jade stones in an earth dump of a companies’ mining field in Hpakant
Freelance jade miners collect jade stones in an earth dump of a companies’ mining field in Hpakant

Blocks are awarded through a centrally-controlled process which, sources say, favors companies connected to powerful figures and high-ranking officials.

“If there is a big hat involved [in a bid], they will surely get it,” one businessman quipped.

Jade companies linked to Than Shwe, former army commander of Kachin State and serving minister Ohn Myint, drug lord Wei Hsueh Kang and Ever Winner Company supremo Aike Htwe recorded around $430 million in pre-tax sales at the 2014 official government jade sale alone.

As the country heads towards election, and funds may be misused to fuel sectarian violence and vote rigging, Myanmar’s citizens want to know where the jade money is going.

According to the report, the money goes into the pockets of people associated with  the military junta, drug lords and crony companies controlled by individuals with political interests.

Global Witness researcher Mike Davis said a chunk of money also goes to China, most of it smuggled, and price manipulation is rife.

Win Htein, the director general from the Ministry of Mines, admitted that vast quantities of jade are sold on the black market, although the official sales route is the biannual jade markets, or emporiums.

“We just hold emporiums twice a year, and it is easier for people to cross the border and sell the jade to China,” he told dpa.

“An armed group can help them do so,” he added, referring to the ethnic rebel group Kachin Independence Army.

As licensed companies controlled by politicians keep gobbling up their natural inheritance, anger and frustration is mounting among Kachin people.

“Hpakant (in Kachin state) is one of the most valuable places on earth because you can earn billions from a very small area… and yet only a small number of people are getting advantages,” said a Kachin community leader who did not want to be identified.

Officers in Myanmar’s army stationed in Kachin are running such an elaborate extortion racket that if a military family does not have a jade company, they are something of a black sheep, the report said.

“Conditions around the mines are often fatally dangerous and drugs and prostitution are endemic, while those who stand in the way of the guns and machines face land grabs, intimidation and violence,” the group said.

The mining business is having an adverse effect on environment.

One small-scale miner, an ethnic Shan who moved into the area at a young age, said 40 years ago, the place was like a jungle with tigers roaming and a river providing clean water. Now the river have gone dry and the forest and tigers too have gone.

Unbridled exploitation of jade has turned Hpakant area into a moonscape, with mining bringing down jade mountains in days, leaving behind water-filled craters and causing widespread flooding and pollution.

In October 2014, 4,923 people of Hpakant township signed a letter to President Thein Sein demanding an end to the abuses by jade mining companies. The letter detailed devastating environmental and social impacts caused by mining activities.

The same  year, around 2,000 locals staged a protest against abuses by the government-licensed mining companies. Some demanded that all company operations be suspended until the conflict in Kachin State is resolved.

Such appeals and protests did not yield any positive results.

Myanmar is set to vote in general elections on November 8, with the military-dominated ruling party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party, facing off against the opposition National League for Democracy.

November’s election is an opportunity for the international community to demand reforms of the jade industry, Global Witness said.

“The US is uniquely placed to help take the jade out of the hands of the military, cronies and drug lords,” the group said.

The United States has banned the import of jade from Myanmar.

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