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Secretive Jade Trade Estimated at Nearly Half Myanmar's GDP

Jade mining in Myanmar.

Jade mining in Myanmar.

Myanmar's jade industry is worth more than $30 billion annually, totaling nearly half of the country's gross domestic product, according to a report released Friday by an international group investigating misuse of resource wealth.

“It's the best estimate that's available, so far,” said analyst Juman Kubba of London-based Global Witness. “What we actually want, though, is to get more information into the public domain so that more reliable figures can come out. There's no doubt that this is the most valuable industry in the country.”

Global Witness' estimate, if accurate, would put the secretive jade industry at a value 10 times that of the illicit and more notorious opium poppy trade.

The report alleges that most of the jade trade is linked to ex-junta bosses – including former military ruler General Than Shwe – and current figures in the powerful military, with little money ending up in government coffers.

The jade sector “is secretly controlled by networks of military elites, drug lords and crony companies associated with the darkest days of junta rule,” according to the Global Witness report.

“This is an industry which we are finding is dominated by the most corrupt individuals in the country,” said Kubba, speaking to VOA from Yangon on Friday.

Proceeds from jade mining and trading collected by the military are also believed by people in Kachin to be used to help finance the war against the rebels in the state.

A senior figure in the rebel Kachin Independence Organization concurred with much of what is contained in the report, but told VOA it is impossible to accurately gauge how much money the government of Myanmar, also known as Burma, makes from the jade business.

“You will not catch how much money the Burmese government is earning [from jade]. That's all top secret,” said Colonel James Lum Dau, a KIO political advisor and former deputy chief of foreign affairs.

The total official sales for jade at Myanmar's state gem emporium in 2014 was $3.4 billion – just over a tenth of what Global Witness estimates as the actual value of trade.

The report says army officers in Kachin state are getting rich through extortion, but jade is also a main source of income for the KIO and its military arm, the Kachin Independence Army, which has been fighting the government since 1961.

Colonel Lum Dau asserts the military and corrupt government officials rake in billions of dollars, but that is not the case for the Kachin rebels, and little of the riches trickles down to the people. “Out of this maybe we can tax very little money from the [jade] businessmen, not from the government,” he said Friday in Bangkok.

Jade mining, which has turned swathes of Kachin state into moonscapes and perilous mountains of mining waste, is now being conducted on an industrial scale.

“Myanmar's jade business may be the biggest natural resource heist in history,” said Kubba.

“The secrecy and abuse at play in the jade sector can also pose major problems for global businesses operating in the country,” according to Global Witness, which names U.S.-based beverage giant Coca-Cola and industrial equipment manufacturer Caterpillar.

Both companies deny any of their activities in Myanmar violate U.S. sanctions that were imposed on those accused of violating human rights or impeding political reform.

“It's important that the U.S. use the influence it has, not least through the sanctions, to try and push for more data to come out and real change to happen and for issues like jade and natural resources to be part of the peace negotiations,” said Kubba.

Activists say extraction of jade in Kachin state has significantly increased in recent months, perhaps because of anxiety that the November 8 general election could change the political landscape.

The opposition National League for Democracy, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, is forecast to make significant gains, however the military will automatically control one quarter of the legislative seats.