NAY PYI TAW — Myanmar’s annual jade and gems sale netted more than US$587 million, an official tally showed Thursday, as Chinese buyers continue to drive a shadowy industry linked with rebel conflicts and notorious for perilous working conditions.
Lusted after by wealthy Chinese, Myanmar’s jade mines were in the hands of the military and their ‘crony’ elites during the junta years and are still believed to raise tens of billions of dollars in undeclared sales.
While the price of the green stone has slipped in recent months, thousands of poor migrant workers still risk their lives to comb unstable pits in northern Myanmar for jade fragments.
Hundreds of slabs of jade were bought during the 12-day sale in the capital Nay Pyi Taw, according to government figures, with around $6.7 million worth of gems and pearls also snapped up.
The event, which drew 895 Chinese companies, is the country’s only official jade sale.
“We displayed fewer lots of jade than the previous emporium … so we also received less money than the previous one,” Than Zaw Oo, of state-owned Myanma Gems Enterprise told AFP, without giving last year’s sale total.
Anti-corruption campaigners say the real value of Myanmar’s jade runs into the tens of billions of dollars annually.
Powerful syndicates linked to smuggling rings and rebel commanders slip tonnes of the precious stone across the northern border to China each year, depriving the state of huge sums of income.
Most of the world’s best quality jadeite — the rarer and more expensive of two minerals containing jade — is mined in Hpakant, a strip of torn earth in Myanmar’s insurgency-wracked northern Kachin State bordering China.
Jade is widely believed to be an important revenue stream for the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) which is resisting ceasefire overtures in its fight against Myanmar’s army.
Jade mines have also long been a dangerous workplace for the itinerant miners who scratch a living from the stone — around 100 people died in a major landslide in November last year.
The falling price of jade in recent months has been attributed to customs action in China’s border area, deterring smugglers and leading to a glut.