MOGOK — Burrowing deep underground, thousands of informal miners risk their lives to find gleaming red gems as a law change spurs opportunity in Myanmar’s “land of rubies”.

Emperors, kings and warlords have long fought over the valley of Mogok in Mandalay Region, where the unique “pigeon-blood” stones lie hidden.

The Mogok rubies are the most expensive in the world, with the highest-quality jewels fetching multi-million dollar prices in an industry notoriously bereft of regulation.

For years, private companies were permitted to mine in a joint venture with state-owned Myanmar Gems Enterprise.

Support more independent journalism like this. Sign up to be a Frontier member.

But a recent law change, aimed at reining in big companies digging hundreds of metres deep, means many licences have not been renewed, and the former diggings have been invaded by artisanal miners.

With no security protecting the sites, locals, many former employees of the mining companies and long marginalised in the trade, have rushed in to stake a claim.

Now the openings of makeshift shafts, some just metres apart, pepper crowded sites, with teams working around the clock to bring up buckets of soil from depths of 30 metres (100 feet).

The holes lead down into a maze of bamboo-supported tunnels just wide enough for the men to inch along on their bellies, while long tubes feed oxygen into the shafts.

“Sometimes you hit another tunnel when you’re digging underground,” one miner, asking not to be named, tells AFP on a break from his shift, covered in mud and kitted out with head torch and walkie-talkie.

Team members haul buckets to muddy pools to clean away dirt, before sifting through piles of pebbles for a telltale red glint.

Police have started patrolling some sites, sparking fears among hopeful prospectors that they will soon start cracking down on the operations.

A miner works in a tunnel in a ruby mine in Mogok. (AFP)

A miner works in a tunnel in a ruby mine in Mogok. (AFP)

Risky business

Tunnel collapses are a constant threat in this scramble for riches, and the start of the rainy season only ups the risk.

Despite slim pickings, the lure of a quick profit is difficult to resist 

One worker told AFP his team of five had only found one gemstone in a month, which they sold for just 100,000 kyat (US$65).

“We’ve spent about 600,000 kyat on petrol and machines so far,” he laments, adding they are simply unable to dig deep enough.

Myanmar’s ruby industry surged in the mid-90s when the former military junta first allowed in private companies that brought with them more industrial methods.

But western sanctions hit hard.

In 2008 the US closed a loophole that had allowed imports of gems from Myanmar, despite 2003 sanctions on the industry, in a bid to starve the junta of funds.

Specific sanctions were lifted after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government came to power in 2016.

The industry remains tainted with a “reputation for corruption, conflict and deep connections to military-linked figures and armed groups”, says Mr Paul Donowitz, of the watchdog Global Witness.

High-value rubies are often smuggled over the border into Thailand or China to be sold directly to private buyers or made into jewellery.

Many of the remainder end up at Mogok’s market, where dealers using torches and magnifying glasses scrutinise small mounds of the gemstones.

Merchants say the boom times are in the past.

“We only see low-quality gemstones these days,” says one shop owner, who has been in the business for 25 years. 


YANGON — A Karen civil society group has expressed concern about a decline in humanitarian aid for more than 5,000 people enduring difficult living conditions at three makeshift camps in Kayin State’s Hpa-an District.

The camps, at a bend in the Thanlwin (Salween) River at Myaing Gyi Ngu, about 70 kilometres north of Hpa-an, have since 2016 housed 5,610 internally displaced persons driven from their homes by conflict.

The plight of the IDPs is the focus of a report released by the Karen Human Rights Group in Yangon on May 22 titled, ‘Dreaming of Home, Hoping for Peace: Protracted displacement in Southeast Myanmar.

It says the IDPs at Myaing Gyi Ngu lack access to adequate food, clean water, safe sanitary conditions, basic necessities and work opportunities, and some have been injured while foraging for food in landmine-contaminated areas.

Support more independent journalism like this. Sign up to be a Frontier member.

Of the IDPs interviewed for the report, 82 percent said landmine contamination was preventing them from returning to their villages, with sporadic armed clashes and continued militarisation cited as other barriers to return.

“Continuing tensions between armed actors and the push to construct the Hatgyi Dam threaten to impede their return and cause further displacement,” the report says.

The KHRG says an aim of the report is to highlight how conflict-related displacement remains a major issue in southeastern Myanmar despite the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement signed by eight ethnic armed groups, including the Karen National Union.

“We must recognise that the peace process has failed to deliver on its promises,” said KHRG senior advocacy coordinator, Saw Way Lay.

“The Myanmar government, the Karen National Union and all relevant armed actors must commit to peace and the safe and voluntary return of displaced populations,” Way Lay said.

The report calls on the Myanmar government and the KNU to cooperate closely to create the conditions necessary for the IDPs to return home and live peaceful and sustainable lives.

“For decades, conflict-related displacement has been an integral part of life in the region, resulting in countless humanitarian crises. No efforts should be spared to put an end to protracted displacement,” it says.

The report says the proposed building of the Hatgyi Dam, one of seven planned on the Thanlwin River, has been a catalyst for violence in the area for years as different armed actors vie for control of the site.

It said fighting has occurred often near the Hatgyi Dam site since the hydropower project was proposed in 1998.

“This has had devastating consequences on local communities, who have fled to Myaing Gyi Ngu to avoid a life of chronic displacement, violence, forced recruitment, forced military labour and other human rights violation,” the report said.

“Tensions further intensified in 2015, with frequent clashes occurring between different armed actors and an increase in displacement to Myaing Gyi Ngu,” it said.