Despite growing movement toward political reform in formerly junta-ruled Myanmar, the country’s jade industry is still tightly controlled by a network of former generals, drug lords, and crony businessmen who keep the sector’s vast profits exclusively for themselves, a new study released on Friday says.
Major players in the estimated U.S. $31 billion trade include former junta chief Than Shwe and senior figures in Myanmar’s ruling and military-dominated Union Solidarity and Development Party, according to the report, Jade: Myanmar’s Big “State Secret,” issued by London-based anti-corruption and environmental advocacy group Global Witness.
“US-sanctioned drug lord Wei Hsueh Kang [also] plays a dominant role through a web of front companies,” Global Witness says, “while Myanmar’s army is helping itself to a gigantic slice of the pie via its own conglomerates and an elaborate extortion racket run by officers in [the country’s northern] Kachin State.”
If openly and equitably managed, the mining of jade in Kachin, most of which goes to China, could “transform the fortunes of the Kachin population and help drive development across Myanmar,” the advocacy group’s report says.
“Instead, the people of Kachin State are seeing their livelihoods disappear and their landscape shattered by the intensifying scramble for their most prized asset,” the report said.
“Conditions in the mines are often fatally dangerous,” the report said, ”while those who stand in the way of the guns and machines face land grabs, intimidation and violence.”
Funds generated by the trade also drive armed conflict in Kachin, with ethnic separatist troops of the Kachin Independence Army and government forces both supported by industry profits, according to the report.
Also dominating the trade in Myanmar are a network of “firms that emerged and prospered under the Than Shwe military junta,” Global Witness says.
“Most notable are the Asia World Group established by Kokang drug lord Ho Hsing-Han and the Htoo Group run by ‘number one crony’ Tay Za, both of whom are subject to U.S. sanctions.”
“Much more significant but virtually unknown” is the Ever Winner group, made up of 12 separate mining firms, according to the report.
Speaking to RFA, the managing director of a state-owned gem trading company in Myanmar hit out at Global Witness’s report on Friday, calling its allegations “incorrect.”
“No one monopolizes this business,” said Aung Nyunt Thein, managing director of the Ministry of Mines-affiliated Myanmar Gems Enterprise company.
“Anyone can apply to work in the jade business in this country,” he said.
“We have about 500 companies registered to work in the jade and jewelry business in [Myanmar] . . . and I don’t see any company carrying the names of former or current generals.”
“We can say that the allegations contained in the Global Witness report are not correct,” he said.
Call for transparency
As Myanmar prepares for national elections on Nov. 8 and a widely expected win by the country’s political opposition, “the importance of these findings to Myanmar’s future is hard to overstate,” Global Witness said.
“Our investigations show that the elites who between them have most to lose from an open and fair future also have ready access to a vast slush fund in the shape of the jade sector.”
It is now crucial that the country’s jade industry be made transparent and that its control and benefits be shared more fairly with the people of Kachin, Global Witness said.
“The US and Myanmar’s other partners should benchmark the lifting of sanctions and future aid disbursements to [industry reforms].”
Reported by Thinn Thiri for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English with additional reporting by Richard Finney.