Burmese Jade’s Deadly Journey
By admin December 3, 2014

Jade market

Most of the world’s jade supply – as well as the best – comes from Myanmar (also known as Burma), where thousands of poor workers mine jade in hazardous conditions, many of which have turned to using heroin, creating, in the process, the world’s highest HIV infection rates. The value of Myanmar’s jade trade is more than $8 billion USD a year, among which $2-3.5 billion worth of the product goes to China. As China’s middle-class expands with its economic growth, so does their appetite for jade, which has always been a symbol of grace and fortune to Chinese people. But the gemstone’s journey from Myanmar’s mines to Chinese consumers follows a trail of addiction, infection and exploitation that has rarely been exposed to the consumers.

Conditions in the mines are abysmal, with the U.S. government stating the jade business in Myanmar violates human rights and undermines Myanmar’s democratic reform process. Around 20,000 people from across Myanmar migrate or are forced to work for one of the hundreds of mine companies that operate in Hpakant, which produces the best quality jadeite in the world. In 2000, one thousand miners drowned when flood waters from the Uru River rushed into the underground mines. However, the news was covered up by the authorities. In addition, explosions and landslides that lead to hundreds of deaths and injuries occurred in 2008 and 2009 respectively. In 2011, conflict erupted between the Burmese Army and the Kachin Independence Army in the area over the rights to the Hpakant jade mines that displaced an estimated 90,000 people and killed hundreds of people.

Drug and jade traders in the country 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 work force toiling in harsh conditions as the Burmese authorities and Chinese business people turn a blind eye on the issue. Corruption also plays a vital role in making the mining of jade similar to the mining of blood diamonds. Rampant corruption has not only robbed the government of billions in tax revenue for rebuilding after decades of military dictatorship, but has also financed a bloody ethnic conflict and can be attributed to contributing to the increase use of heroin and H.I.V. infections among the Kachin minority who work in the mines.

While the West has largely lifted sanctions, for instance the EU, against Myanmar in the wake of the tentative steps taken by the government of President Thein Stein towards democracy, U.S.’s ban on jade trading still exists.  At this time, as Myanmar is experimenting with democratic governance after nearly 50 years of military dictatorship, its handling of the jade industry has become a test for the new civilian leaders and their commitment to supporting human rights and rooting out corruption..

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