• Shan

No Commitment to Peace Wastes Valuable

Natural Resources in Shan State

Images by
Suthep Kritsanavarin
Text by
Suthep Kritsanavarin and Jittima Jantanamalaka
MONG HSU, Shan State — "Asking to see the pigeon's blood is like asking to see the face of God."

Attributed to a Burmese trader by US gemologist Richard W. Hughes, this quote hints at the rarity of the world’s highest quality rubies. Pigeon-blood rubies are found in only a handful of places in the world, the combination of rich red, blue and violet making them some of the most exquisite and expensive gems on the planet.

Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
In May 2015 at Sotheby's Geneva the Sunrise Ruby, an exceedingly rare pigeon's blood ruby mined in Myanmar, set a new world record for the most expensive coloured gemstone ever sold at auction. The 25.59 carat stone sold for just over $30 million USD.

In fact, the ten most expensive rubies sold in auctions worldwide between 2011 and 2015, with a combined value of more than $85 million USD, all came from Myanmar - five of them pigeon’s blood rubies from Mogok in Mandalay Division. Mong Hsu in Shan State also mines extremely high-quality stones and between them these two sites produce almost 90% of the world's rubies. Which begs the question: Where does all the money go?

Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
Shan State in north east Myanmar has been the canvas for numerous protracted conflicts spanning decades. Although Mogok in neighboring Mandalay Division is recognized as the source of the greatest proportion of the worlds finest rubies, Mong Hsu, territory under the control of the Shan State Army North (SSA-N), has also been producing high-quality rubies on a large scale for almost 30 years.

In Loi Tai Leng, the mountainous headquarters of the Shan State Army South (SSA-S) on the Thai-Myanmar border, small factories cut gemstones mined in Shan State. SSA-N and SSA-S are the military wings of the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and the Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS) respectively, and these groups, as well as others in this troubled area of Myanmar, profit from the ruby industry through trade, transportation and taxation. 

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Saw Sein Na Mine, Mong Hsu Township"The current owner took over this mine around 15-20 years ago. Now we call it 'Saw Sein Na' after his father," says Sai Sar Aung (Pigok), the 33 year-old General Manager of the Saw Sein Na ruby mine, over a friendly dinner. 

It's late in the evening after hours on the steep, uneven mountain road. Although it is late April the weather is cold and a fierce storm rages. A giant crossing the mountains, tearing at the camp outside.

Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
Early next day Pigok shows us around. From the mountaintop, surrounded by morning fog, white hills of mining waste can be seen everywhere. A miner checks for damage after the storm of the previous night - some houses have collapsed but the damage is not as severe as first feared. Word reaches us that more than half of one nearby mine collapsed overnight due to the heavy rain.

There is a monastery on the mountaintop and small houses populate the hillside. Monks and novices walk collecting alms. This community was born of ruby mining decades ago– in more prosperous times there were hundreds of thousands of people living here, but although there are still rubies to be found the population is now a fraction of that number.

"2000-2008 were the peak years for ruby mines in Mong Hsu. We used to get 4-5 kilograms of rubies per day and have over a hundred workers, but that has reduced and many of the workers have left to find other, better jobs." explains Pigok.
Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
This mine is one of very few still operated by Shan people and is recognized as having some of the best working conditions of any of the mines in the area. “We have 30 workers here at the moment, from 14or 15 years old, and the oldest one is around 49 years old. The male workers have two shifts of work, morning and afternoon, nine hours a day, the female workers have three shorter shifts in the extraction part only.”
Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
It takes about five minutes by lift to reach the bottom of the mine, 200 meters inside the mountain. The lift can carry up to eight people at a time, four inside and four perched on top. It is is wet and cold, with just a flue to allow air in from outside.

Tubes are filled with potassium nitrate to make explosives and are used to find a trace of rubies in the walls of the mine which can then be extracted in small pieces. After that the ruby-filled rocks are transferred to the surface for female workers to complete the extraction process.

Every day before going down into the mine workers pay respect to guardian spirits for their protection. There is still strong belief in these sacred spirits, and they should not be angered for fear of accidents befalling the miners.

Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
Mining Mong Hsu's rubies to extinctionIn Mong Hsu senior monk Lone Paw Wimala explains why there are fewer and fewer rubies being extracted from these mountains; “There are still plenty of them and the quality is even better, but they have to dig deeper and deeper, now at least 200 meters using heavy machinery so there are not many [operators left], and most of them come from another place.”

The monk also tells us that “A small token of rubies go to Yangon officially, to Nay Pyi Taw, and to pay the tax at the emporium, but by smuggling to Thailand from Mong Hsu via Tachileik 90% leaves the country illegally.”

In conversation with a gems factory manager at Loi Tai Leng about the ruby trade, we are told that the SSA-N “has been trading rubies for a long time, but not as a registered business.This is why the Wan Hai headquarters is perfectly positioned. They have a big advantage over the Burmese in trading rubies and controlling the routes in Mong Hsu, but the Tatmadaw (Myanmar military) is still controlling most of the ruby trade and the bulk of money goes directly to them from Mogok.” In Mogok it is only possible to carry out large-scale mining by entering into a joint venture with the government.

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Wan Hai HeadquatersA patrol car of SSA-N forces patrols a public highway which passes near the mines of Mong Hsu and its headquarters in Wan Hai, six hours away from the Shan State capital of Taunggyi. Both the SSA-N and the SSA-S have ceasefire agreements with the Tatmadaw (the SSA-S are signatories to the government's Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), whilst the SSA-N signed a bilateral ceasefire agreement in 2012), but reports of clashes between the Tatmadaw and both groups remain frequent.

On 6th October 2015 a large-scale offensive was launched by the Tatmadaw against SSA-N in the area around Wan Hai, including artillery bombardment of the headquarters itself. Tensions rose again in 2017 when clashes were reported between the Tatmadaw and SSA-N in Mong Hsu township.

Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
Around the same time the SSPP/SSA-N released a statement claiming that the Tatmadaw has launched over 500 military offensives in the five years since the bilateral ceasefire agreement was signed.

Major Phone Han from the SSPP/SSA-N was reported locally as saying; “We signed the ceasefire because we want to solve the political issue with a peaceful method. Over 500 offensives have been launched against us from 2012 to now while we are doing negotiation. Our men have been arrested. Over 40 men have been detained at the prisons and jails in Muse, Kutkai, and Lashio,”

Despite ceasefires and talk of peace there seems to be no hope for the end of conflict in Shan State any time soon. And while that is the case there is no doubt that the lucrative ruby industry in north east Myanmar will continue to fund military operations and government-affiliated companies rather than development which could improve the security and standard of living for the Shan population.
Suthep Kritsanavarin/NRGI
The future of Mong Hsu's minesWe ask Pigok how long he thinks his mine will last. He believes there are still more rubies in the mountains but it depends on the luck of the person who digs them up, it's all about fate. He sees a future for the mineand to prove it he shows us some newly found rubies. Within the past six months one ruby from the Saw Sein Na mine sold in Thailand for 17 million Thai Baht (more than $500,000 USD).

With that kind of money in play it is little wonder that leaders on both sides of the conflict want to protect their interests. “Ceasefire?Cease in the morning, fire in the afternoon, the whole country, cease then fire,' laughs Lone Paw Wimala in Mong Hsu.

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