Myanmar’s mysterious mining mecca

Myanmar’s miners have been left with little more than scraps following years of military plunder

Feliz Solomon
December 29, 2016
Myanmar’s mysterious mining mecca
Children sift through mine waste for pebbles. Photo: Taylor

High in the hills of northeastern Myanmar, past a few sleepy army checkpoints on a stretch of road where mobile phones lose their signal, an ageing signpost set against a mountainous landscape reads: “WELCOME TO RUBY LAND”. This is the entrance to a little-known and seldom-visited town called Mogok, which is said to be the source of 90% of the world’s finest rubies.

Mogok’s narrow, dusty roads wrap around the curves of its valley slopes, where tiny shops tucked between houses bustle with antiquated artisanship. In one, a group of women power stone-cutting equipment by pushing wooden pedals back and forth with their bare feet to set a rough, round stone spinning on a table. Their hands hover over it with machine-like precision, cutting and polishing rubies, spinel and sapphires into uniform shapes in a matter of minutes.

A few blocks down the road, a handful of apprentices solder away at a neighbourhood goldsmith’s. Their workbenches are set before the shop’s large front window, and every few minutes they hold up their work to check the contours against the sunlight streaming in. They are focused, steady handed, skilled in traditional craftsmanship. Watching them through the glass is akin to peering in on a bygone era, as they handcraft designs that look back to the baroque tastes of days before modernity.

“I learned in my teacher’s workshop; I was an apprentice,” says Myo Win Aung, the shop’s 50-year-old founder. He says business has slowed in recent years, as local people no longer have stones to set. He still receives orders from “businessmen”, though, who collect his handiwork and ship it to China or Thailand.

But over at the market, the beating heart of most towns in Myanmar, traders still empty bags of assorted stones onto plastic-coated tables shaded by umbrellas in the blazing heat. Blue sapphires, bright pink rubies and chunks of quartz and diamond are laid out, shifted around, quickly sorted and swapped. At the end of the day, the tabletops are cleared and the gem dealers head home with clinking pockets full of precious stones.

Workers toil underground in a Mogok mine. Photo: Taylor Weidman
Workers toil underground in a Mogok mine. Photo: Taylor Weidman

Until about two years ago, Mogok, in Mandalay Region, remained one of Myanmar’s so-called ‘black zones’, a hidden valley accessible only through a few government-controlled roads guarded by armed state security forces. Today, with the travel ban eased and sanctions lifted, the mysterious mining mecca is open for business. It is known around the world for producing some of the finest quality rubies, known as “pigeon blood” for their deep, pinkish-purplish hue and crystalline purity. In April, the Jubilee Ruby, a 15.9-carat Burmese stone set in a gold ring, sold for more than $14m. A similar 10-carat piece was going up for auction at Christie’s Hong Kong in late November with an expected price of up to $12.5m. Natural, untreated Mogok rubies of fine colour can be valued at $80,000 per carat, according to the Myanmar Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative.

It is unclear whether the army left much inside the mountains: in the 1990s, the military seized swathes of hillside land and consolidated the mining industry into the hands of a few well-connected elites. They tore the earth open with heavy machinery, digging tunnels that dive up to hundreds of metres below the ground. “If they told us to stop digging today, we wouldn’t care – there’s nothing left,” the manager of one of Mogok’s biggest mines, who wished to remain anonymous, told Southeast Asia Globe.

Many locals, who had independently mined the area for centuries, were either employed to carry out poorly paid manual labour or sift through the industrial waste for pebbles. Today, when school is not in session, whole families gather outside some of Mogok’s biggest mines, panning the adjacent waterways for tiny red rocks that slipped out into the waterways. Others spend their days on the side of a steep mountain road, chopping up rocks with hammers in hopes of finding a valuable nugget inside.

On 7 October, US President Barack Obama officially lifted a ban on Myanmar ruby imports that had been in place since 1997, when Congress ratified the Junta Anti-Democratic Efforts Act. The law was imposed to stem the tide of funds flowing to Myanmar’s notorious generals by blocking trade in two of the country’s most valuable resources: rubies and jadeite, a green stone sourced almost entirely from Myanmar’s conflict-ravaged Kachin State. The jade trade is known to be a dark and deadly one: poor miners are routinely killed in landslides, many suffer from drug addiction and disease, and the jade mining area of Kachin State’s Hpakant region is literally surrounded by active militants, both Kachin rebels and Myanmar Army troops.

Mogok’s status as a no-go zone prompted much speculation about what exactly was going on in the mines. Reports occasionally emerged of children as young as 12 being forced to break rocks or perform other hard labour. Rumours abound that a heavily secured nearby army compound was actually a uranium mine, though the claim is impossible to verify and has been officially denied. On a visit in March, Southeast Asia Globe found few signs of egregious labour abuses during our mostly chaperoned tour, but the scars of past abuse and deeply entrenched inequality are everywhere apparent in this dusty and developmentally stunted outpost.

“People are very happy about the lifting of US sanctions,” says Sawthaung Tin, a regional lawmaker for the National League for Democracy, “but mostly, it doesn’t affect the poor people very much.” The reason, he says, is that a new law governing gem mining is still in the works, and the draft does not include adequate measures to ensure that small-scale miners have the access and support they need to benefit from the industry. Simply put, locals lost their land, which held stores of precious material, and the government has not yet found a way to ensure they will get back whatever is left of the ravaged hillsides.

“We are hoping for the best,” Tin tells Southeast Asia Globe. “Anyway, the people thank the US very much with all our heart and soul.”

In July 2015, 400 small-scale mining permits were issued to locals who could prove that they had lived in Mogok for more than 20 years. Each awardee had to pay a fee ranging from $400 to $500 in order to claim it. Locals welcomed the opportunity to mine legally—many people literally dig deep into their own back yards for scraps—but some of the select few that attained the permits complained that they were not good quality lots.

Kumar, a trader who earns a few dollars a day in the local market, said he believed Aung San Suu Kyi – a Nobel laureate and the country’s de facto leader – would usher in a renaissance. Her party, the NLD, secured a landslide win in elections last year, flushing out the military-backed government. Despite her electoral mandate, Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from becoming president, and serves instead as state counsellor, a role she invented for herself upon taking power in April.

“She is my president,” Kumar said, casting eyes over the rough road and scarred hillsides beyond. “She is the mother of our country, and she will do better.”

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