Men seek to escape poverty in the jade mines. Instead, it’s the drug dealers and middlemen who get rich.
KACHIN STATE, Myanmar — An ancient Chinese proverb likens jade to the character of men. As the saying goes, “both are sharpened by bitter tools.” But in the jade mines south of China’s border — a wasteland known as Hpakant in Myanmar — men’s lives are not so much sharpened but shredded to bits.
“Hpakant,” said La Htoi, a 34-year-old jade broker and recovering heroin addict. “That is where Satan slowly called me to hell.”
Even by the standards of Myanmar — infamous for warfare, poverty and oppression — Hpakant is a dark and depraved place. Its once-verdant hills have been ground down into gaping quarries that produce jade of unparalleled quality. By the thousands, men descend into these stadium-sized pits hoping to emerge with an armload of jade, a ticket out of poverty.
But Myanmar’s multi-billion dollar jade industry instead funnels wealth to military-connected elites. Miners’ meager earnings are typically swallowed not only by middlemen but by potent, dirt-cheap heroin, traded with impunity in Hpakant’s bazaars. “You can see heroin sold on the roadside there like vegetables,” La Htoi said.
Myanmar, formerly titled Burma, has in a few short years rehabbed its image dramatically. Until recently a scorned backwater, Myanmar now takes in more than a million tourists each year. Most seek glimpses of its shimmering Buddhist temples and mold-eaten architecture left behind by the British Empire.
The nation is undergoing a long-awaited transformation. After five decades of totalitarian military rule, its generals formed a partially elected parliament in 2011 and promised to build a freer, less exploitative society.
There is cause for hope: The police state is partially dismantled, Western sanctions are melting away and the president promises to forge peace with the dozen-plus guerrilla armies controlling the borderlands — including the Kachin Independence Army, or KIA, which vies for control of Hpakant’s jade.
The White House has helped goad on the world’s hope for thrilling change in Myanmar. “Now you can see it. You can taste freedom,” US President Barack Obama said in a historic 2012 speech in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city. The nation, Obama said, has a “remarkable opportunity … to pursue peace where conflicts still linger, including in Kachin State.”
But Hpakant has emerged as a crucial test case in a country being branded by leaders as “The New Myanmar.” The nation’s future will be determined by whether the generals will stop hoarding jade fortunes and instead use Myanmar’s natural bounty to rebuild a broken society.
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