Kachin State sees itself as ethnically distinct from the rest of Myanmar. Source: YouTube
Nay Pyi Taw has unveiled reforms to its jade trade, worth an alleged US$31 billion to corrupt officials and Chinese firms, in a move activists claim could signal “a new era of fundamental change”.
The move comes as the government gears up for its Panglong peace conference with all rebel armies and ethnic minority political parties. The date has been set for August 31.
The decision to end renewal of jade mining permits, and to suspend the licensing of new ones, follows a series of fatal landslides in Hpakant, Kachin State, protests against lack of regulations and independent reports on the social and environmental cost of the jade trade.
Foreign journalists were long prevented from reaching Hpakant with the industry protected the corrupt generals and drug lords who control and profit from it. Global Witness’s report in 2015 exposed that many jade companies were linked to former dictator Than Shwe, military-appointed ministers, members of the former junta and US-wanted drugs boss Wei Hsueh Kang.
“It is really significant that the new government is taking a stand on jade licensing,” said Juman Kubba of the UK-based NGO Global Witness. “If Aung San Suu Kyi is to change how Myanmar is seen by the rest of the world, this is a really good place to start: jade is so symbolic of the legacy of cronyism, corruption and abuse left by decades of ruthless military dictatorship.”
The jade trade was estimated by Global Witness to be worth US$31 billion in 2014, nearly half of the impoverished nation’s GDP. Kachin State suffers from grinding poverty, war refugees, drug addiction and ongoing conflicts with powerful rebel armies.
The jade is taken straight across the border to China, where the profits are made.
“Freezing licences is a critical first step towards wresting control from the elites who have plundered the country’s jade riches for so many years, with total disregard for the environmental and social cost,” said Tsa Ji of the Kachin Development Networking Group. “Now a new approach to licensing is needed – one that puts local people and the environment first.”
The Kachin, a mostly Christian group in the Buddhist-majority union, demand autonomy from Nay Pyi Taw and after 20 years of peace with rebels armies, civil war resumed in 2011, in part fuelled by the uneven distribution of jade wealth. Around 100,000 people have been forced to flee their homes for squalid camps by fighting, which is partly funded by jade and drug profits.
“For some of the armed ethnic organisations, jade is an important source of income, as they provide services in areas not under government control, such as health services, education or supporting [refugees],” said Mark Farmaner, director of Burma Campaign UK. “Suspension of all licences could be perceived by some armed ethnic organisations as pressure on them to agree to a ceasefire at a time when Aung San Suu Kyi is trying to prioritise the peace process and finally bring about some change. It needs to be clear that they are doing this to clean up the industry, not for any other political motives – to push them into agreements they might not want to agree to.”