• Kachin

Following the Jade Smuggling Trail:

Searching for Answers Along the Myanmar-China Border

Images by
Minzayar Oo
Text by
Minzayar Oo and Paul Vrieze
JUNE 2015, HPAKANT, Kachin State — Traveling to Myanmar’s Kachin State in 2014, I spoke with a man worried that this “land of jade” could be left barren within a decade — destroying any hope that the region’s rich endowments of gemstones would fuel local development.

Each year huge quantities of jade mined in Myanmar seep illegally across the country’s northern border into China’s Yunnan province, where jade is more highly prized than anywhere else in the world. Most revenues from the multi-billion dollar shadow economy escape government taxation.

I have traveled to northern Myanmar on five occasions to photograph different facets of the jade industry, including in 2014 when I documented the lives of Kachin’s freelance jade miners, many of whom live in poverty and are addicted to heroin. A deadly landslide in November 2015 tragically killed more than 100 miners, underscoring the need for better regulation of jade mining and its social impact.

In 2015, I returned to Kachin State with a different objective: to trace the routes by which gemstones illicitly pass from Myanmar into southern China. Jade traders I spoke to indicated two main routes through which jade flows, untaxed.

Some travels from the mines at Hpakant, the origin of almost all of the world’s best jade, through Myitkyina — the capital of Kachin State — across the Chinese border to Yin Jiang county in Yunnan. A second route delivers jade directly to Ruili, a town opposite Muse in Shan State, the most important point for China-Myanmar border trade. 
A secret $31 billion industry Jade has long been one of Myanmar’s most profitable natural resource sectors but the mines were off limits to visitors, while the identity of those who profited from mining — and how much the trade is worth — was kept secret by the former junta. Investigations by resource revenues watchdog Global Witness have now, however, begun to reveal these secrets.

A report released in October estimated the trade could be worth as much as US$31 billion in 2014, bigger than any other resource sector in Myanmar. Mining concessions, the London-based NGO said, were held by former strongman Sen-Gen. Than Shwe and his family, senior officials in the military and the Union Solidarity Development Party, as well as by crony firms and an ethnic Wa rebel leader and drug lord.

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State revenues generated from the sector are limited and little of these funds reach conflict-wracked Kachin State, although the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are said to tax the jade smugglers. The Myanmar army and the KIA have been in conflict since mid-2011 in a struggle that is partly fueled by the ethnic Kachin’s demands for greater benefits from the rich resources in their region.

Global Witness estimates that between 20 and 50 percent of the jade is sold at the government’s annual emporium in Naypyitaw, while the rest flows untaxed across the border into China.

On the road to China The road from Myitkyina to the Chinese border is the best I have ever traversed in Myanmar. Shrouded in fog and clouds, tiered mountains and deep green forests add a dose of mystery to this majestic route. After passing through checkpoints operated by Myanmar immigration and the Border Guard Force, I arrived in a border town called Kam-Pai-Tee.

Here I had to leave the minivan that carried me from Myitkyina and get into a shared Chinese car that would take me into Yunnan Province. The red border passbook from the Myanmar immigration department that I needed to legally enter China cost me about 6,000 kyats (just under $5).

As our car departed Kam-Pai-Tee one of my fellow passengers, a Kachin black market jade trader, complained about a recent experience with the immigration police there. “A few weeks ago, I tried hiding with me a good piece of raw jade stone to avoid paying the hefty fee for a jade smuggler,” she told me.

“But a police officer found it and threatened to arrest me, so in the end I had to pay him about 200,000 kyats. What a bad idea! I should have just trusted it to the carrier who knows how to deal with them.” As she finished her tale we were approaching the Myanmar-China Friendship Tunnel, which marks the frontier between the two countries.

Professional smugglersJade traders normally pass through the official border crossing empty-handed, entrusting the covert transit of their jade to a professional smuggler. Traders told me that smugglers will charge based on the stones’ weight or, if a stone is of particularly good quality, negotiate for a higher cut.

After transferring to a third car in the Chinese border town of Teng Chong we finally arrived in Yin Jiang, which is along a section of the ancient Silk Road trading network. I quickly discovered that the lower floors of most hotels there are fully booked but only later did I learn these dimly lit rooms serve as rendezvous points for jade traders and smugglers.

Traders told me that not even the owners of the smuggled stones know in which cars their raw jade is hidden. Once they arrive at the hotel compounds in Yin Jiang the smugglers remove stones in the secrecy of a makeshift garage. The jade, packed in yellow wrappings and marked for identification, is delivered to hotel rooms for later pick-up by traders.
China jade business thrives, Kachin suffersAlthough the jade border trade is illegal under Myanmar law, I visited many businesses displaying raw jade from Myanmar in the streets of Yin Jiang, including a bustling open-air jade market in the town center. Some shops display a Chinese certificate of legality, but others do not.

“Stones are dissolved into the Chinese market without Myanmar government tax,” one Kachin trader told me while showing a beautiful apple-sized piece of jade which he keeps stored in a safe. He expects that the stone could fetch as much as 50 million kyats (US$40,000).

Re-entering Kachin State I passed a camp for refugees displaced by fighting between the Myanmar military and the KIA, one of dozens of such sites where some 100,000 civilians have lived since fleeing their homes in 2011.

My head swam with questions: How much of the jade produced in Myanmar is vanishing, uncontrolled, into China? What is the exact value of the illegal trade? Most importantly, how could this lost revenue help rebuild the lives of refugees, impoverished miners, and others living in Kachin State? I, for one, plan to be back on the jade trail in search of answers. 


The UNEARTH project is supported by the Natural Resource Governance Institute and was initiated as part of its Extractive Industries Photo Documentary Project.