HPAKANT, MYANMAR // The town of Hpakant is asleep as dawn breaks. Earthmovers slumber on huge slag heaps, guarded by fluorescent lights. Lush, dense jungle gives way to land more reminiscent of a frontier Wild West town, stripped bare by the Myanmar junta's relentless pursuit of jade. With a population of about 100,000, Hpakant is the centre of Myanmar's jade mining industry. Two state-run high schools and a bustling market lend an air of normality. Hpakant is tucked away in the remote north of the country, in Kachin state, between India and China, and foreigners are forbidden from entering the area by Myanmar's military dictatorship.
Around 20,000 people from across Myanmar migrate or are forced to work for hundreds of mine companies that operate in Hpakant. Arun Htin, 30, who did not want to give his real name, has been an illegal jade miner or jade stealer in Hpakant for the past four years. Originally from Myitkyina, Kachin state's capital, he sifts through dregs of soil dumped by legal mine workers over ground with his hands for slivers of jade they may have overlooked, as he looks for the gem and what he hopes will be a way out.
But in reality, for him and thousands of other illegal and official jade miners, collecting the precious stone has become little more than a ticket to a life of exploitation, poverty and addiction; a passport to the next hit of heroin and cheap rice alcohol. "I use many kinds of drugs; heroin, alcohol," he said. "I smoke heroin and get it from drug-selling shops in Hpakant. The government, the soldiers do not do anything to close the shops. The drug sellers just give money to the authority leaders and bribe them and sell it freely."
Mr Htin is one of the lucky few; he earns between 50,000 kyat (Dh28,000) and 100,000 kyat a month stealing jade and selling the gems to illegal and legal jade dealers. Most legal jade miners are fortunate to be paid a US$1 (Dh3.67) a day. Mr Htin became an illegal jade collector to help support his family, including his four brothers and parents, who live in Myitkyina. But dire working conditions led him to start smoking heroin a year ago. He spends 15,000 kyat on each fix.
"I started to take heroin to feel happy, because my life is hard. You can work all night and work all day without getting tired. The first time I took it, I remember, I felt high. Our lives are very, very miserable and difficult, stones fall on top of you. "Some of my friends died because of this work because of rocks falling on top of them. There is no safety equipment, no training, nothing. We just buried their bodies, with no compensation, nothing from the companies."
Imperial green jade is found only in Myanmar. Jewellery made from this kind of jade can sell for millions of dollars on the international market. But Myanmar's mining industry is built on suffering. Forced and child labour, land confiscation, drug abuse, sexual exploitation and environmental damage have scarred the mining trade, according to human rights groups. Myanmar's mines are either partly or completely owned by the country's military leaders and its business partners. From mining to cutting, polishing, trading and selling, the regime's generals control the gem industry with a vice-like grip. Revenue from the lucrative trade filters straight to the junta, a government that spends about $330 million a year on arms but less than half that amount on education and health care combined.
A new report made public yesterday reveals the growing links between Myanmar's expanding mining, hydropower, natural gas and oil projects and China, a country keen to tap into Myanmar's natural resources to feed its growing energy needs. The report, by EarthRights International (ERI), a non-governmental organisation based in Thailand, points to 69 Chinese multinational corporations working with the junta on various multimillion-dollar projects including mines, dams and gas pipelines in Myanmar. Research by ERI reveals 10 Chinese firms are involved in six mining deals with the regime.
The report outlines Beijing's growing economic involvement with the regime and adds China has supplied arms and financial support to the junta. Matthew Smith, project co-coordinator at ERI, said Beijing's growing presence in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, played a key role in the continuation of human rights abuses. "China's involvement perpetuates the status quo. If you really want to understand China's approach to Myanmar, you can look at what's happening on the ground and that is Chinese demand is leading these Chinese multinational companies to increase their involvement in Myanmar's natural resources sector. That in turn is contradictory to China's foreign policy of peaceful coexistence and has a demonstrative impact on the ground in terms of human rights abuses."
Precious stones are among the junta's largest source of foreign revenue along with oil, natural gas and agricultural exports. Myanmar's gem industry plays a crucial role in propping up the regime, a military dictatorship that has shown its willingness to oppress its people through systematic human rights violations since it first seized power in a violent coup in 1962. The junta's attempts to stifle information about its mining industry has meant research into the jade industry is limited. However, the first report investigating conditions in Myanmar's jade mines, published last month by the New York-based advocacy group 8-8-08 for Burma, highlighted the human rights abuses perpetrated by the junta in jade mining areas.
"An environment of impunity and violence has been created by the military regime and its corporate partners, who inflict beatings on and even kill locals who are caught collecting stones cast off as trash by the mining companies. "Mining company bosses and local authorities are complicit in a thriving local trade in drugs which - when coupled with a substantial sex industry - has led to a generalized HIV/Aids epidemic that has spilt over the border into China," the document said.
Though no comprehensive research into HIV rates in Kachin state has been carried out, the International Crisis Group has reported that 1.3 per cent of adults in Myanmar, a country of around 55 million, are infected with HIV, one of the highest rates in Asia. Corruption means government officials long ago turned a blind eye to the narcotics and sex trades. Drug dealers and brothel-owners pay bribes to junta officials, who in many cases protect the flesh and drug industries. The global anti-corruption group, Transparency International, has ranked Myanmar as the second most corrupt country in the world after Somalia, linking corruption as a key factor in the perpetuation of human rights abuses by the junta.
Myanmar's people face an even bleaker future as the global jade industry expands. Campaigners have warned demand for jade, particularly in China with its rising economic growth, is on the increase. Human Rights Watch has estimated that $297m worth of gems, including jade, were exported from Myanmar in the financial year 2006 to 2007. The figure had risen to $647m for the following fiscal year. Jade mine managers in Myanmar agree the industry is thriving. Sai Joseph, 34, became a mine manager in Hpakant in 2004. At that time, he said, the town was home to between 300 and 400 mines. Now, there are around 3,000 "official" mines and countless others.
Some of Hpakant's official mining firms are joint ventures between private mining companies, both foreign and Myanmar, and the junta. The country's military generals have direct stakes in many of the domestic firms. Other mining companies are private, Myanmar-based firms. The regime's regulations means foreign companies are not allowed to own mines but must either form a partnership with a Myanmar company or with the junta.
Beijing's place at the centre of Myanmar's jade industry, and its economy, is indisputable. Gem-quality jade is highly prized in China. While China does mine some of its own jade, the majority of Myanmar's jade is sold in China. Reliable data is hard to obtain but informal evidence suggests China is the largest consumer of jade from Myanmar. When asked about the claims, the Chinese embassy in New Delhi said: "China advocates dialogue instead of imposing pressure. Furthermore, the accusations cannot be proved."
The junta in Myanmar continues to depend on Beijing for political support in the international community. China and Russia last year vetoed a draft United Nations Security Council resolution put forward by the United States and Britain that would have called on the junta to ease political repression and the persecution of ethnic minorities. The United States, the European Union and Canada have imposed arms embargoes on Myanmar, but China, along with Russia and India, continues to sell arms to the regime.
But while human rights activists have urged Beijing to do more to force the regime to improve its human rights track record, some political analysts have warned China will not apply overt political pressure on the junta for fear of creating instability in the region. Analysts added Beijing is lobbying the junta informally on the regime's human rights violations as China fears instability could affect Myanmar's growing ethnic Chinese population and Chinese business interests.
Myanmar's main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), has confirmed it has been involved in informal talks with Chinese officials to try to steer through progress towards democracy and an eventual improvement in human rights. But the junta has refused to engage in dialogue with the NLD, of which Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi is leader. Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in Thailand, said: "I doubt China has the intention to bring about progress because China and India have a notion of stability in Burma and that stability is provided by the military. If the military disappears, they think the sea of stability will disappear and Burma will disintegrate, ethnic insurgencies will happen.
"Change depends on China's intention and the Burmese military's mindset. But the Chinese government is concerned about the Burmese military's situation of continuing human rights abuses. That's why they have started talking to Burmese opposition groups to find out what is actually happening." He added political dialogue with the military, rather than a continuation of policies that isolate the junta, could act as a springboard to implement gradual reform.
"Human rights abuses are a key instrument in the US foreign policy. They are non-negotiable. But we need to look for ways to engage in dialogue with the military government and then tackle human rights abuses. We have to keep human rights on the agenda but at the same time, there must be ways to engage with the Burmese military," he said. "The whole situation is very hopeless. The West won't give up on its ethical position, the military won't change.
"If the West continues to see it in a black and white way it will not contribute to the development of democracy or the improvement of human rights in the country." firstname.lastname@example.org