Myanmar’s imperial jade is considered the world’s most valuable and is highly sought after for its near-transparent emerald-green hues. According to an unpublished report, the undeclared value of Myanmar’s jade trade may be equal to half of the country’s GDP, or 46 times as much as the government spending on health care. But few revenues from the jadeite has made its way into the local economy.
More than 100 people died in one incident last year when a waste tip collapsed as scavengers, many of whom were driven by the hope of finding a large jade stone, searched for jade scraps, drawing a sharp rebuke from many and prompting officials to propose that operations be shut down. There remains a growing unease about the number of social and environmental disasters fuelled by a wave of ongoing armed conflicts in the jade mining areas with local people in distress. There is hardly any other way to resolve the armed conflicts but to respect fully their right to health, food, shelter and access to information.
As a member of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, Myanmar has agreed to devise a plan by January 2017 for revealing the beneficial ownership of jade companies and reforming mining legislation. But a particularly troubling part of the equation is how much local people are set to benefit from the jade revenues if the plan goes ahead.
Much to the dismay of transparency watchdogs, in September, President Barack Obama met with Myanmar State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi on her official visit to the US and announced that all economic sanctions including those affecting the Myanmar Gems Enterprise, would be lifted. Perhaps, not unsurprisingly, it was the MGE that announced that permits for more than 300 jade and gem blocks would expire this month. A moratorium on new permits was declared in July.
To its credit, the incumbent government has moved quickly to try to rein in the out-of-control industry that is in dire straits, introducing transparency measures which are to be enforced with punishment for those who break the law while the jade demand remains high.
On top of that, the administration needs to take concrete action toward promoting greater protection of the rights of local people while ensuring cooperation of all stakeholders, especially the law enforcement agencies. Only then will things change for the better.