Imperial Green jade is the world’s most exotic treasure. More valuable than diamonds, it has only one source: a forbidden mine in the shadow of the Himalayas. It’s mysterious beauty has intoxicated collectors all over the world. Yet – as this unique undercover report from Burma reveals – that beauty is purchased at a terrible price.
In the JW Marriott Hotel in Hong Kong, several of the coolly-suited men and women watching the hammer rise and fall are possibly less relaxed than they seem. It’s 3.30pm and outside commuters are already jostling in Pacific Place, hurrying home in the sweltering afternoon. But the real heat is in here, behind the shuttered windows of the five-star hotel. An auctioneer from Christie’s is taking bids for a jade necklace, and the bidding is merciless.
Within seven minutes, a world record has been set: £5.8 million, the highest price ever paid for a piece of jade jewellery. And so the necklace, a flawless string of 27 Imperial Green jade beads, heirloom of an old Burmese family, passes into the hands of an anonymous collector.
That was last November, and the significance of the sale – and the price achieved – is still sinking in. Pound for pound, Imperial Green Jade is now worth more than diamonds, and auction houses from London to New York have been clamouring for information about it. Names of alleged collectors, alive and dead, have been bandied about: Barbara Hutton, the spendthrift Woolworth’s heiress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek, widow of the Chinese nationalist leader; General Khun Sa, the heroin warlord; and Danny Kaye, actor and UNICEF ambassador. But the most intriguing thing about this rarely seen form of jade, known by the Chinese as the Stone of Heaven, is not who owns it but where it comes from. In the weeks following the Hong Kong auction, most commentators had to admit that they didn’t know. Since then, they have gradually learned and many now wish that they hadn’t since the world’s only deposits of Imperial Green Jade are trapped in the far north of Burma, inside the terrifying mines of Hpakant.
The 19th centurv Chinese Empress, Dowager Cixi, was one of the first to collect the stone, which she described as the colour of a kingfisher’s neck feathers. In those days, it was chiselled piece meal from the hills by the local Kachin people. The British began to mine for rubies in the area at the turn of the 20th century, but did not show any interest in jade until the Thirties. Then, following the Second World War, Burma’s hills of jade were all but forgotten in the struggle for independence and the subsequent civil wars. No Westerner has been to Hpakant for decades.
Until three years ago, Hpakant was controlled by Kachin guerrillas, who spent most of the proceeds of their jade on Chinese guns. Then, following a ceasefire between Burma’s ruling junta and the Kachin rebels, the mines were seized by the government as a trophy of war, which it guards today with a security cordon patrolled by thousands of soldiers.
And now the mines have acquired a more desperate significance. After years oil political isolation, Burma’s military regime is close to economic collapse. The junta has been snubbed by the US, which imposed sanctions last year, and has been made pariah by the international community for its human rights record. The Hpakant mines offer a means of resurrecting its fortunes. Seeing the results of the Hong Kong auction, the junta announced a plan to increase Hpakant’s output by 700 per cent. The result has been human misery on a scarcely imaginable scale.
The rumours began to trickle out to the West in February, when international gem collectors and businessmen converged on Rangoon, Burma’s capital, for a government sale of jade. Refugees from Hpakant were claiming that hundreds of thousands of labourers were enslaved in the jade mines there, paid only in heroin supplied by government agents. They said that up to a million people had come to Hpakant, lured by promises of finding their fortunes, and had found instead destitution, slavery, addiction – and an HIV epidemic with the highest infection rate in the world.
These rumours confirmed reports that a handful of Burmese doctors had secretly sent to international aid agencies sponsored by the European Commission and the United Nations. Now, on the basis of new first-hand accounts, both the EU and UN declared Hpakant a disaster zone and offered to establish emergency relief programmes. In March, the Burmese dictatorship rejected the offers of aid and refused the agencies access, claiming that Hpakant was a restricted area in a militarised zone. Five days later, two reporters from Night and Day reached the mines, the first journalists to visit Hpakant in half a century. What we found there confirmed everyone’s worst suspicions.
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