Myanmar’s $31bn ‘secretive’ jade industry keeps fuelling rights abuses

Buddha statue made of jade, displayed in Miami, US. (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Myanmar’s secretive jade industry has been is fuelling armed conflict, land expropriation and even deadly accidents, a new report from rights group Global Witness shows.

Mining of the greenstone, which has been in the hands of Myanmar’s military and elites during the final years of junta rule, remains a key driver of conflict between the government and ethnic Kachin rebels, funding both sides in a war that has killed thousands and displaced around 100,000 since 2011.

Revenues from the jade industry are equivalent to nearly half Myanmar’s GDP and they are up to $122 billion over the decade through 2014.

After a 12-month investigation, Global Witness found the local industry is worth far more than previously thought — up to $31 billion in 2014 alone. That is equivalent to nearly half the GDP of the whole country, and up to $122 billion over the decade through 2014.

But the shadowy nature of the business, controlled by networks of military elites, drug lords and crooked companies, makes it difficult to ascertain where the money goes, it adds.

According to watchdog, there has been an escalation in jade extraction since large-scale mining resumed last September, which is destroying traditional sources of income — farming and small-scale mining— while stoking antagonisms in a volatile region.

Jade miners work under extremely dangerous conditions, particularly those who pick through churned up material from large-scale machinery on unstable hillsides. So accidents and landslides are, unfortunately, quite common.

In January, at least four died in the mining town of Phakant after heavy rains loosened a heap of debris next to a jade mine in the area. Three months later, a landslide in a mine controlled by the former general secretary of the country’s ruling party, U Maung Maung Thein, killed an estimated 30 to 60 people.

Most of the jade extracted in Myanmar, which remains under U.S. sanctions, is smuggled into China, where the “stone of heaven” is considered a symbol of virtue and power, and it is believed to ward off evil spirits and improve health.