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Geographical – Mine Over Matter

In 1998, Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark discovered thousands of people mining jadeite in Myanmar’s jungle in exchange for heroin. Sales of the stone continue to support the country’s brutal regime.

WHEN WE FIRST heard the rumours, they were garbled. Interviewing Myanmar refugees in camps strung along the Thai-Myanmar border three years ago, we were told stories of how vast tracts of the jungle were being cut away by government soldiers. A valley in the foothills of the Himalaya, an area in the far north of Myanmar known as the Kachin Hills, was reportedly being excavated on the orders of the military regime that rules this impoverished Southeast Asian nation.

Battalions of government soldiers were said to have ringed the area, with orders to shoot trespassers on sight. The refugees claimed that within the cordon lay a special government project that rumbled like a freight train. Eyewitnesses said that at night the jungle canopy was strung with lights that glowed like the phosphorescence in a dark sea.

Every day a long line of trucks drove into the project, carrying thousands of labourers from all over Myanmar. Every night, the same trucks emerged loaded down with boulders and bundles, longyis, sandals, shorts and bamboo hats, wrapped up in oilskin and twine. The Myanmar jungle was holding captive more than a million people, many of whom were sick or dying, the refugees claimed. What were the generals mining in the remote Kachin Hills?

Over a decade of economic isolation, brought on by the Myanmar military regime’s imprisonment of the pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, has left it to asset-strip a country once christened by Ptolemy as the Great Golden Land.

Swathes of ancient hardwood forest have been torn down and sold-off to make way for a pipeline that pumps gas from the Andaman Sea to Thailand. The great Irrawaddy River is being poisoned by gold prospectors who pump mercury into its waters, and the Salween is being dammed to produce electricity that Myanmar’s neighbours neither want nor need. The once lush rice bowl of Asia can no longer feed itself as paddy fields have been replanted with opium poppies by the army. And in its rush to raise capital, the cannibalistic military regime has launched dozens of campaigns against its own people and more than one million out of the 46 million-strong population are unaccounted for.

The refugees’ rumours appeared to stem from a place called Hpakant, a long-forgotten mine in the Kachin Hills. Myanmar is famed for its rubies and sapphires but it would not be until we gained access to the Chinese Imperial annals stored in the Forbidden City in Beijing that we learned that Hpakant had once been celebrated throughout Asia as the world’s only significant source of jadeite.

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