Featuring the images of photographer Minzayar, this is a photographic journey into Myanmar’s famed jade mines and the links to the military and ethnic armed conflict which has engulfed the country for decades.

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If a Kachin is asked overseas ‘where do you come from’ then that Kachin would answer ‘I come from Jade Land' ... However, we Kachin are not receiving any benefit from jade ... More conflict is being created because of jade.

Kachin civil society representative

Jade is the people’s jewel.

Shan civil society representative

Section 1: Overview

One year into its term, Myanmar’s civilian-led government faces a stiff challenge. Can it deliver the peace it promised to make its top priority when it swept to power on a wave of opposition to military rule?

The ethnic armed conflicts which have ravaged the country’s borderlands since independence are at their root a struggle over rights and representation. It is no coincidence, however, that the most serious fighting is in the north – which is also home to the world’s most lucrative jade mines. Military elites face losing their grip on the multi-billion dollar industry, and resist prospects for peace and reform that threaten those interests. 

As the country heads towards new peace talks, it is time to tackle the role natural resources play in incentivising and fuelling armed conflict. Attention must be paid to who is given access to valuable deposits, how extraction is managed and monitored, and how benefits are shared. A fair, transparent and accountable approach is crucial to achieving the lasting peace the people deserve. 

Section 2: Battlegrounds of the North

Kachin and northern Shan States are home to the most serious of Myanmar's armed conflicts. The UN estimates that around 100,000 people have been displaced since fighting began in 2011, some more than once. Now, their camps and host communities are under threat from new attacks as military offensives scale up.

Over the last year, the conflict has intensified. According to January figures, over 10,000 have been driven from their homes in the last round of fighting Increased restrictions on humanitarian aid to non-state controlled areas have worsened the suffering. Local people are increasingly desperately calling for peace.

In January 2015, the government army launched an artillery bombardment. We were between two armies [and] the bullets fell on our village ... so the elders and village leaders arranged for us to move out ... We went back once last year. The houses are empty as we are all here in camps. I felt very sad as I used to live in that house. No matter how much I want to go home, it is impossible.

Primary school teacher, camp for internally displaced people.

During the last period of fighting ... the Tatmadaw launched heavy artillery bombardment [at] the KIA posts ... People were fleeing. Some [stayed] but the rest ran away ... Life here is very difficult at the lowest level.

Abbot at monastery, Hpakant, Kachin State.

Section 3: The spoils of war

The big companies all represent the military, cronies and elite groups.

Community leader, Kachin State

Myanmar's jade billions could be supporting much-needed development. Instead, the mines are being ransacked by some of the most notorious names from the junta era. 

During a 17 year ceasefire which ended in 2011, valuable deposits were carved up and handed out to powerful companies by the military government. Local communities who had worked the mines for centuries were squeezed out. The new arrivals brought in heavy equipment and machines to empty Kachin State of its jade.

Global Witness investigations have revealed a string of military players in the jade business. They include the families of former dictator Than Shwe and former commander of northern Myanmar Ohn Myint, as well as notorious army companies such as Myanmar Economic Holdings.

A fair peace deal could see these powerful networks lose their control of lucrative jade mines. They have the means and, with the army’s continued influence, potentially the ability to keep the fighting going until they have seen off any threat to their interests. 

As documented by Global Witness, on the ground, the Tatmadaw (army) units in Kachin State reap huge sums through extortion rackets, which hit the smallest operators hardest. Jade is also a key revenue source for the other side in this conflict. The Kachin Independence Army has its own system of revenue collection, and figures associated with other ethnic armed groups, including the Wa State Army/United Wa State Party, have direct interests in the jade business.

Myanmar’s resource wealth belongs to the Myanmar people. It does not belong to looters who save money in Singapore and Geneva. Where justice is in short supply peace is a distant dream ... this world belongs to all; not only [to those] who have arms and armies.

Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, Archbishop of Yangon

Section 4: Paying the price

Huge amounts of precious jade have been mined in Hpakant over decades and yet in Kachin State there are insufficient schools and the supply of electricity and the roads are in very poor condition.

Community leader, Kachin State

Now most jade miners just find stones in the debris left by the big companies.

Industry representative

Within Kachin State, jade has become a symbol of profound injustice. 

With the legal mines largely taken over by powerful, well-connected companies local people seeking a living from jade have to operate informally in dangerous conditions. They are joined by thousands of illegal yemase (jade pickers) who have flooded in from other states  to seek their fortune.

Local communities have worked the mines for generations, using the income to build homes and educate their children. Now, they find themselves largely shut out, and criminalised even for carrying good quality jade. They see army-backed companies gorging themselves on the ‘jewel of Kachin’, while they suffer the impacts of war, the destruction of their environment, and rampant drug usage. The situation deepens anger and resentment against the state, feeding ethnic nationalism and undermining opportunities to build the trust essential to achieve peace.

In its first months, the the new civilian-led government took positive action to start tackling the problem. The incoming minister immediately visited Hpakant,  and in July 2016, the government announced a ‘pause’ on licensing, barring  extensions or new awards until a revised legal framework is in place. The Department of Mines has also commissioned an environmental management plan which is now being prepared. 

However, mining continues in areas where jade licences have yet to expire, and those who profit from the industry are pressing for revised laws and regulations so they can resume full activity quickly. It is vital that the government holds firm and takes the time needed to bring in the right safeguards and protect local people from further corruption and other harms. 

The owner of a jade lot is not sure of the future so you have to bring in [all the jade] you can within the limited time. You use lots of heavy machinery. You have to rush! You cannot abide by environmental and social standards, hence the destruction.

Industry representative

Section 5: Resisting reform

Powers behind the scenes are trying to manipulate everything. Only the top echelons have changed ... [the rest] are all the same; the same faces. This creates a very awkward situation. How can a new minister accomplish the changes he wants?

Former government official

They’ve spent lots of money on machines and labour, so can’t leave them idle. The running costs are too high. So they need to find ways to keep operating. Will the government officials be able to punish those who do wrong? I don’t think so.

Industry representative

The conflict provides a useful pretext to maintain the status quo. Although the major jade mines are in a government-controlled area, the military has repeatedly used the fighting to keep prying eyes out. There is a recognisable pattern of the military seizing on excuses to launch attacks at moments when the industry comes under pressure. As illustrated below, for example, a ministerial visit to Hpakant last year was immediately followed by an escalation in fighting, taking the spotlight off reform. International observers, such as the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar have found themselves blocked at the last minute from visiting the mines and bringing attention to the changes needed. 

I ... pushed hard to go to Hpakant. This is a government-controlled area [but] the government did not confirm or deny access until the last minute. The reasons for the refusal by the State government did not match those given by the Union government.

Ms. Yanghee Lee, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar

At the same time, jade data such as concession maps and sales information, remains largely under wraps, creating a further obstacle to effective scrutiny. And, within the jade mines, some companies are finding ways around the government imposed licensing suspension, by teaming up to pool their machines in mines still open for business. This allows them to continue extraction, and keep the jade revenues flowing as long as possible.

Section 6: The road to peace

We are listening to the radio hoping for news of peace. We listened to all the speeches from the 21st Century Panglong Conference for hope of a better situation. But it is getting worse now. We are following news on TV, radio, hoping peace is coming.

Villager displaced from jade area by fighting

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has made achieving peace her number one priority. In the north of the country, however, faith is starting to falter in the face of escalating fighting and widespread suffering. The upcoming talks provide an opportunity to make progress one of the most serious obstacles to peace – jade. 

The experience of past ceasefire in Kachin State has shown the pitfalls of simply laying down arms without tackling underlying disputes and grievances. This means sharing access to jade and the benefits it brings fairly, promoting sustainable local and national development, and protecting against corruption, environmental destruction and human rights abuses.

Progress now on jade sector reform would address a key catalyst of the fighting, help build trust and bring the country closer to the lasting peace and democracy the people deserve.

Dirty money controls the economy and corruption is rampant ... People object to military control because we have been living under a dictatorship for six decades. We want to be free from this kind of control.

Myanmar civil society leader

My dream is a situation where communities are allowed to choose themselves which company is best.

Community leader, Kachin State

We need transparency and therefore trust between Kachin State and the central government.

Former politician

Notes & References