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Connected to the outside world through the one crumbling road, we arrived at dawn to a Hpakant full of Caterpillar backhoes and industrial-sized dump trucks. Taking two months to be transported, the large yellow Caterpillar machines float up the Irrawaddy River and then over the hills to reach Hpakant’s mining area, where they are put into use by the more than 450 private companies operating there. Joined by 100 joint ventures, the majority of which are owned by Burmese with Chinese heritage, all work to dig jade out of 3,000 separate mines.
Hpakant itself is set among a series of hills that are slowly being denuded by the mining machinery. Entire mountaintops are severed only to be repositioned as piles elsewhere. Plant life bursts forth where it can, but most of the earth is an excavation site, undulating for miles into the distance. The Myanmar military maintains an invisible presence and the most prominent office in town belongs to the Kachin Independent Organization, an ethnic breakaway group that signed a cease-fire with the government in 1994 and now makes handsome profits off extortion rackets in Hpakant, as well as through the sale of opium, timber, and precious stones near their headquarters along the Myanmar-China border.
In essence, the country runs like a mafia, from the languid teashops of Yangon to the remote jungle areas of Kachin state in Upper Burma, where Hpakant is located, and where much of the world’s jade comes from. It was there I met Sai Joseph, a gregarious and entrepreneurial family man who manages one midsize jade company. “There are only a few wealthy people in Myanmar,” he told me, “those who get in with the political people, the authorities who have power.”
According to Joseph, an ethnic Shan living in Hpakant for only four years, business was very good. The road, he said, is kept bad on purpose in order to dissuade the “office workers” (i.e., government officials) from visiting too often. Once a scene from Dante’s Inferno—the few outsiders who visited sometimes described thousands upon thousands of half-naked men, women, and children clawing into the rock in search of jade—the mining is now a largely mechanical process executed by industrial backhoes and dump trucks. A few mines still employ human diggers, and earlier this year one such site collapsed, killing 20. A prime piece of real estate, it is best to be in a joint venture with the military government. But it is also possible to do business otherwise, paying bribes to the right officials.
The week before President Bush left for Beijing he signed into law the Burma Jade Act, adding Myanmar’s jade and rubies to the long list of goods restricted for import. Jewelers such as Bulgari and Tiffany had already elected to stop using Myanmar stones in their products.
Democracy advocates in exile hold out hope that China, which is Myanmar’s largest trading partner and its ally on the United Nations Security Council, will become the linchpin for changes in the regime. But most Burmese I spoke with on my two-week visit didn’t think China would ever yield to Western pleas for it to play such a role. Jade sellers in the marketplaces of Rangoon largely shrugged off the ban, saying that business from neighboring China, India, Thailand, Singapore, and the Arab Gulf states was booming. Business with China is in fact thriving, partly because tighter Western sanctions have made the junta more dependent on China for diplomatic support, as well as arms and consumer goods.
Since 1997, US sanctions on Myanmar such as the Burma Jade Act have only tightened. Largely as a result of lobby groups in Washington, the sanctions have helped to further isolate an already xenophobic and authoritarian junta, which has been in power for most of the past 50 years and is the longest running military dictatorship in the world.
“Sanctions are the only thing this government welcomes,” said Win Kyaw Oo, a former journalist who claims he lost his job by asking the wrong questions of the right people. “The government wants to isolate itself and the sanctions help them do this.”