The report, released on Friday by Global Witness, says that ahead of elections next month the findings show how much powerful elites and former rulers have to lose from open and fair polls. The election has been presented to the world as one of the country’s final steps towards democratic reform.
A 12-month investigation has revealed Myanmar’s secretive £20bn jade trade, which is controlled by notorious Burmese military leaders and drug lords who maintain an exclusive grip on the lucrative gemstone business.
“Myanmar’s jade business may be the biggest natural resource heist in modern history. Since 2011, a rebranded government has told the world it is turning the page on the ruthless military rule, cronyism and human rights abuses of the past,” said Global Witness analyst Juman Kubba.
“But jade – the country’s most valuable natural resource and a gemstone synonymous with glitz and glamour – reveals a very different reality.
“This massive, dirty business is still controlled by a rogues’ gallery of former generals, drug barons and men with guns. Hidden behind obscure companies and proxy owners, these elites cream off vast profits while local people suffer terrible abuses and see their natural inheritance ripped out from beneath their feet.”
The 128-page report by the London-based group puts the value of Myanmar’s jade production as high as £20bn in 2014 alone. This figure equates to nearly half of the entire country’s GDP and over 46 times national spending on health.
The report says relatives of notorious figures, including former dictator Than Shwe and ruling party members Ohn Myint and Maung Maung Thein, are major players in the jade industry. Than Shwe’s junta was criticised for human rights abuses before he stood down in 2011.
Myanmar’s armed forces, officially known as the Tatmadaw, and drug lord Wei Hsueh Kang, wanted by the US on drugs charges and carrying a $2m reward, are also key beneficiaries, the report says.
“We’re very confident about the roles of the families of Than Shwe, Ohn Myint and Maung Maung Thein,” Mike Davis, Asia director at Global Witness, told the Guardian. “We have quite a depth of evidence on all three cases, based around jade business insider testimony, company records and official documents and maps showing what companies have what jade mines.”
The information on the sums of money that their families’ companies made came from official records of the government-organised Myanmar Gems Emporium events in 2013 and 2014, Davis said.
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The dark green rock is mostly sold to Myanmar’s northern neighbour China, to be used in jewellery and ornaments. A necklace made of jade beads was sold for £17.7m at an auction in Hong Kong last year.
The report says the destructive industrial mining of jade is also fuelling a separatist conflict in Myanmar’s northern Kachin state, where the central government is battling the 10,000-strong Kachin Independence Army (KIA). The fighting has displaced 100,000 people.
“The industry generates funds for both sides in a war,” the report says. “This creates incentives for military commanders and hardliners in government to prolong the conflict and protect the ill-gotten assets they stand to lose if the jade business is run more openly and fairly.”