Lords of Jade

N.B Chyoi / July 13, 2021

Bodies of Landslide victims in July 2020 / The Kachin Post

It is surprising that the country which accounts for approximately 90% of world’s jade deposits still struggles to maintain her poverty & human rights position among the developing countries. The “Jade” trade right from its mining or extraction to refining is actually controlled by handful of people or better called as “Lords of Jade”.

Lords are either top ethnic leaders of Kachin and Shan origin and their armed groups like Kachin Independence Organization (KIO/ KIA), United Wa State Army (USWA), Burma Army’s high-ranking Commanders and its allied Border Guard Forces (BGF). The conflicts in the mining areas are over percentage of share and both Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAOs) and Burma Army are assured to gets their share. The “yemase”, basically poor miners, constitute the main work force, but they remain hand to mouth throughout life, suffer hardships, casualties due explosion, land slides.

This has been carried on since generations. While working in harsh conditions, vices like drug addiction or alcoholism comes as bonus for these miners. Jade business despite having high revenue generation capacity, has been kept out of legal parameters mainly to suit the Lords and it is the reason despite naturally rich Kachin and Shan still remains underdeveloped and being a conflict-prone land. Natural wealth is being eroded systematically by these bunch of Lords.

Illegal mining and smuggling has slowly changed the hands and got transferred to Chinese due to poor infrastructure in Burma. It has been done purposely to keep the trade out of any legal hassles or taxes or checks in Burma. Chinese jade traders frequents Burma’s jade and ruby belts in Kachin, Shan and Mandalay to negotiate directly with small traders and do business without paying any taxes. Many Chinese got married to Burmese or Ethnic women, better called as “marriage of convenience” to establish base and extend business and now they almost control real estate business in Mandalay.

Marriages have helped them in acquisition of prime lands, investment in mining areas or contracts for mining. Today Chinese has total control over entire “Jade Trade” being the largest consumer of gemstones. Jiegao Complex, just after crossing the Ruili-Muse gate, is a big international market for jade or ruby traders. Muslims, Nepalese and Burmese have their stalls in the complex and billions of dollar trade is done on daily basis but revenue goes to China rather than Burma. As jade or ruby is smuggled into China, Burma remains devoid of any revenue, this is how China reversed the trade and getting the revenue on the items extracted from Burma.

A recent report on Burma’s Jade Sector by Campaign Group “Global Witness” has called for global boycott of Jade industry as it will automatically stop the fund supplies to Junta. Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL) still holds major stake in jade business. Myanmar Gem Enterprise (MGE) is fully under Burma Army. Senior officers are willing to shell out heavy price to secure senior posts in Northern Command and Division 101, which controls the jade belt. Aung Pyae Sone, the son of Burma’s coup leader Senior Gen. Min Aung Hliang, has been facilitating the import of dynamite to Jade belt. So this is a very organized nexus.

Similarly, KIO/ KIA Chairman Gen. N’ban La family have own jade mining interests. KIA’s Jade Evaluation Committee have been found to undervalue the jade stones to evade taxes. Arakan Army (AA) which maintains links with KIO and have training bases in Kachin is benefited from this jade business. Money generated is used to purchasing weapons. So till there is jade, the conflict will continue, it hardly matters who rules at Naypyidaw.

In 2016, NLD made an attempt to review regulatory regime for jade and gems and drafted a “Gemstone Law” in 2019 but it remained unenforced, perhaps due to political compulsions. There was opposition within NLD to this law due to obvious reasons.

The recent coup has thrown wide open the door for predation in the jade sector like that of past and it is the reason for increased KIA-Burma Army conflict in Hpakant and Hkamti areas since March 2021. Now, Burma Army wants Lion’s share and they want to consolidate their position in mining belts across Burma since they are aware that this sector will remain unaffected and can generate funds in odd times. They are also keeping tight grip over oil and gas sector to maintain the flow of funds.

N.B Chyoi is a Kachin lawyer and geopolitical analyst focusing especially on Burma, India and China.

The opinion expressed here is the author’s own, and does not represent the editorial policy of The Kachin Post.