The stolen treasure of a nation

Analytics | Ilkin Bayramli | 26-10-2017, 07:45

The stolen treasure of a nationMyanmar has been worldly renowned for the quality, rarity, and variety of its precious stones since ancient times. Chinese Ming and Qing emperors, British colonizers, Burmese kings, Shan warlords, and current Myanmese military have all been gravitated by the alluring glitter and monetary value of the Burmese gems. The precious stones that can be found in Burmese lands include spinel, diamond, ruby, tourmaline, peridot, jadeite, topaz, garnet, moonstone, lapis lazuli, chrysoberyl, amber, quartz etc. But two of these stones—rubies and jade— are especially lucrative. The quality of “pigeon’s-blood” red rubies and imperial jade found in Myanmar’s Mogok Valley—historically known as the “Land of Rubies”—is today considered to be the finest and most prized in the world. Mogok gemstones command a relatively higher—sometimes even 200-300% more—prices in the market than their global counterparts. For instance, a “pigeon’s blood” ruby known as “sunrise ruby” was sold for a world record USD 30.33 million at Sotheby’s auction in Geneva, which equates to over USD 1 million per carat, in May 2015.The abundance of these resources should not go unnoted as well: the recent estimates approximate that roughly 80-90% of the world’s all rubies and jade are mined in Myanmar, and, thus, for years, Myanmar had almost no competitors in the global market in terms of exporting raw gemstones.1 

Needless to say, incredibly abundant resources generate incredible amounts of money. According to the 2015 Myanmar Statistical Yearbook, mineral product exports in that year accounted for USD 3.9 billion dollars, constituting 30.8% of 2015’s USD 12.5 billion total export value. However, unofficial sources set a much higher bar for the extent of revenues. According to a report prepared by Global Witness, a not-for-profit organization investigating human rights abuses driven by exploitation of natural resources, about USD 31 billion revenue was generated from jade extraction in 2014 alone (although the official yearbook indicates only USD 3.55 billion export revenue for the entire mineral resource sector in the same year). 

A relevant question to ask is, where do these profits go? Although this question had been poorly addressed for a very long time, in the recent years increasing human right abuses in the Kachin state has brought this issue to the forefront of international investigation organizations. In October 2015, one such organization, Global Witness, prepared a comprehensive report on the intricate relationship between jade extraction and ever-increasing armed conflicts. As the report generalizes, the core of this problem is the fact that “[t]he jade business is dominated by a rogues’ gallery of military hardliners, army companies, ‘crony’ tycoons and drug lords. ”Among senior ruling party figures, many former and current generals and ministers can be found controlling the jade industry through a network of family members, proxies, and firms. Take the former Senior General Than Shwe. The Global Witness report reveals that the ex-General’s 4 sons and a daughter are directors of 3 jade extracting companies, namely, Myanmar Naing Group Gems, Kyaing International Gems, Kywe Wa Sone Gems. These three companies and other cronies firms affiliated to the Shwe family are estimated to have generated sales of over USD 220 million during 2013 and 2014. Apart from many other government officials accompanying Than Shwe, there are many other groups crowding this list. Myanmar’s army has its stakes in the jade business performed largely through Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited and Myanmar Economic Corporation, approximated to have generated USD 280 million during the years 2013 and 2014. Also, the Myanmar government has been allocating jade mining concessions to the Tatmadaw* families (reflecting a feudalism-like socio-economic structure), which, in effect, further richened military officials, empowered their grip on the country, and brought deforestation, land grabs, and coerced relocations. Similarly, the Kachin Independence Army/Organization, the nation’s second largest armed group, also derives significant sums of money from jade business, largely through taxing companies, and had in the past waged wars for retaining its control on the jade sector. Moreover, there are a number of “crony” companies with powerful connections to the military junta such as Ever Winner, Asia world, and KBZ Group who make unheard profits at the expense of human rights violations and environmental destruction. Several drug lords are also documented to take advantage of the jade business to strengthen their drug commerce. 

This atrocious mismanagement of natural resources engenders a number of social and environmental consequences for Myanmar’s present and future. First of all, the fact that such a profitable and capacious industry is concentrated in the hands of affluent few, most of them being foreigner having little interest in the Myanmar’s future, fuels the already self-manifesting anger and dissent of the nation towards its own government. The locals who have not been given any share in mining industry and consider themselves to be “robbed” of their natural resources and continue to hold a hardline stance against the government, perpetuating the armed conflicts. And as long as the jade industry serves as a financial vein for the military and armed groups, it is hard to imagine the conflicts ceasing. Extensive environmental problems have been created by the mining industry, too. The companies worrying only about the expiry date of their contracts solemnly consider earning as much short-term benefits as possible and ignore the long-term consequences of their exploits. As seen from the complaints of the locals addressed to the government2, the mining companies use dynamite and huge vehicles to intensify the extraction of natural resource, which, in turn, leads to unheard air and water pollution and rise in the occurrence of diseases and fatalities. The lack of systematic stabilization measures in the excavation areas leads to floods, which destroy the cattle and property of the locals. The companies, on the other hand, rarely take any responsibility for the accidents caused by them. Uncontrolled excavations also lead to depletion of Myanmar’s most abundant resources and encroach on the share of future generations. “We can’t see the mountains which we saw in our youth anymore. Today they have disappeared! High mountains have become valleys,” recounts one local resident3. What is even more disappointing is that such sums of money have the fullest potential to prepare a more prosperous future for a country in which 25.6% of the population live under the poverty line4, 78.2%, or 41 million, have no or only intermittent access to the Internet5, only 36.3% live in urban areas6, and adult female illiteracy rate is 66.2%7. Instead, the intensifying struggle for this resource is fueling further human rights violations, land grabs, and poverty8

To reverse this trend, the government needs to sacrifice the interests of the rich few for the interests of the many. However, as seen from the examples above, the stakes in the jade industry are very high. Extraction of jade and other gemstones is not merely a question of wealth for many actors; it is also a means of acquiring and maintaining a firm grip on the mechanism of the country. To achieve their ends, the above actors resort to all means possible. Despite all the setback, the problem is not entirely insurmountable. In order to put an end to the hegemony of oligarchic mining businesses, the democratic government has to bring the issue of human rights violations in the resource extraction area to the forefront of the country as well as the international community, and require the gem-extracting firms to be more transparent and accountable in their practices. Also, some of the money generated from gem excavations need to be appropriated to the development of local communities as a part of their rights to the land. The stolen treasure of the nation, only if returned to the nation itself, has the finest capacity to carry Myanmar on its shoulders towards development and peace. 



* Tatmadaw is the official name of Myanmar armed forces.



1. The data in the paragraph is taken from Myanmar Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Gemstone Sector Review, July 2016, Emma Irwin

2. See the pg.73 of Global Witness’ report “Jade: Myanmar’s Big Secret”


4. Elmer. "Poverty in Myanmar." Asian Development Bank. May 30, 2017. Accessed October 13, 2017.

5. Ibid.

6. "Myanmar Literacy Adult literacy rate, 1970-2017." Knoema. Accessed October 13, 2017.

7. Ibid.

8. Information in the paragraph was aided by the report of Global Witness, “Jade: Myanmar’s Big Secret”


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Ilkin Bayramli

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