myanmar sunset


Myanmar is so closely identified with natural resources such as jade, rubies and teak that its name is a brand in itself. But so far its people have not benefited. Read more

Since independence in 1948, Myanmar was run by an iron-fisted military dictatorship who simultaneously plundered the nation’s wealth while engaged in violent conflict against ethnic groups. Resources like gas, gems and timber were overseen and controlled by the military, fuelling corruption while enflaming civil conflict. Indigenous and minority communities, especially those in ethnic regions saw their lands and resources taken and turned into strip-mines and plantations.

In 2016, a new civilian government, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, took office after securing a landslide victory in the country’s first open election in over fifty years. Her government pledged to end decades of civil war and reboot an economy smothered by the junta. One of their first actions was imposing a licensing freeze on the mining of precious stones, and in early 2019 it passed a new gemstone law. In spite of recent progress, however, many issues remain.

The military continues to dominate politically and economically, retaining its grip on the country’s extractive sectors. Conflict rages in the North, and the army now stands accused of genocide in Rakhine State. Civil society is under attack and land rights remain tenuous, especially for the rural majority who face threats of displacement due to opaque and misguided land management laws.

With most international sanctions now lifted and the country open for business to international investors, Myanmar sits at a turning point. The opportunities for improvement, and the risks of inaction, are both unprecedented. The responsible development of the country’s vast resources could help Myanmar build a peaceful and prosperous future, but only if this development is equitable and inclusive, and forms part of any durable peace process. 

Our 2015 investigation into the jade industry exposed the extent of the corruption and illicit trade, revealing a sector worth up to an estimated, eye-watering $31 billion in 2014 that was secretly controlled by a network of military elites, drug lords and their cronies unchanged from the darkest days of the junta. We showed how the jade trade was sustaining longstanding conflicts around the country, especially in Kachin State.

Global Witness’s investigations expose on-going problems with natural resource management, and our policy advocacy makes recommendations for systemic reforms. We continue to push for transparency and improved governance in the gemstone, in land reform, and we support local partners engaged in Myanmar’s Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a global effort to clean up the world’s oil, gas and mining trades that, if fully implemented,  could be transformative for governance.

Much has changed in Myanmar in recent years. There is real opportunity to help millions of people benefit from Myanmar’s resources and build better lives. But this will only happen if the Myanmar government prioritizes working with all stakeholders to wrest the economy back from the hands of the military elite and to secure a sustainable peace process that addresses the resource and economic drivers of conflict.