Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Army-connected jade mining companies may have carried out "the biggest natural resources heist in modern history", this according to Jade: Myanmar's 'Big State Secret', a report by Global Witness, an NGO that monitors the links between natural resources, corruption, armed conflict and environmental destruction
The report says that jade valued at a staggering almost US$ 31 billion was extracted from Myanmar mines last year. It estimates that the figure for the last decade could be more than US$ 120 billion.
Custom data indicate that last year precious and semi-precious stone imports into China from Myanmar were valued at .3 billion. However, that does not include what is smuggled directly to Chinese buyers. In fact, the overall figure might be three times as much as official figures indicate.
The highly lucrative precious and semi-precious gemstone industry is complicating Myanmar’s democracy process because of a lack of transparency and the involvement of key players closely associated with the former junta government, which gave up formal power in 2011.
The site of the world's biggest jade mine area is in and around Hpakant, Kachin State, which saw a bitter fight between Myanmar’s army and rebels.
Access to the area is highly restricted. However, campaigner with the London-based Global Witness obtained footage from the site, showing huge articulated vehicles turning mountains into moonscapes.
To operate a mine in Hpakant one need military connections. The main companies listed in the Global Witness report are either directly owned by the army, or operated by those with close ties. A few are run by those connected to ethnic armies, in return for them maintaining a ceasefire.
"If a military family does not have a jade company they are something of a black sheep," said Michael Davis, from Global Witness. “These families are making extraordinary sums of money, often in the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Prominent among those allegedly profiting from the trade are jade companies owned by the family of retired senior general Than Shwe.
As the military ruler of Myanmar, also known as Burma, between 1992 and 2011, he ruled during a period in which demonstrations were brutally repressed and opponents imprisoned. Despite being retired, many still think he is influential behind the scenes.
According to the Global Witness report, companies connected to Than Shwe's family made more than US$ 220 million in jade sales in 2013 and 2014.
With an election on the horizon and considerable political uncertainty the companies involved are clearly in a hurry. In light of a possible new government after elections next month, Davis said major licensed companies have sped up their mining operations for fear that a change in the political climate might bring serious consequences.
However, even if the opposition National League for Democracy won the elections, the rate of change in the jade industry would be slow, Davis said. At least, “Somebody needs to come in and have a fresh look at this, and recognise that issue for what it is,” he added.