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Drugs, Jade and Insurrection

Myanmar was once the world's largest supplier of heroin until it was unseated by a post-Taliban surge in production in Afghanistan. Yet recently, as the country has been welcomed back into the international community following years of pariah status under a cruel military dictatorship, opium cultivation has once again surged to a record 150,000 acres of land according to a UN survey. The terrain of the so-called 'Golden Triangle', a mountainous region straddling the borders of Laos, Thailand and Myanmar is historically where most of the poppy cultivation has taken place. Now, production in Laos and Thailand is minimal compared to Myanmar where farmers produce two annual harvest. This, in addition to the fact that Burmese heroin commands higher prices for its superior quality, gives a sense of of the money involved in Myanmar's burgeoning heroin production.
The mining of jade, another of Myanmar's resources that is particularly prized in its giant neighbour China, is not illegal, unlike poppy cultivation. Yet the industry is shrouded in secrecy and proceeds are carved up three ways between members of the military, leaders of various ethnic minority rebel groups fighting the central government and Chinese businessmen who facilitate the smuggling of billions of dollars worth of jade across the porous border into China. The men who work the mines of Hpakant, a remote part of Myanmar's northern Kachin state where much of the jade is found, are mostly ethnically Christian Kachin and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), a local militia, has been battling the central government since independence from Britain in 1961.

In a cruel twist to Myanmar's skewed economy that is only slowly diversifying away from almost complete dominance by the military junta, the cheap heroin being grown by northern Myanmar's poor hill farmers is being consumed by the desperate miners of Kachin state to work long hours extracting the jade that is traded across the border into China.

By some estimates, four out of five jade miners are habitual drug users and some dealers take jade as payment for the drug. Local activists reckon that a majority of Kachin youths are addicted to heroin and that almost a third of drug users have contracted HIV. With little to no money from the central government to battle against the scourge of addiction, local churches have taken on the mantle of rehabilitation, offering faith and prayer to ward off the pain of withdrawal.

After decades of battling various ethnic militia in its hinterland, Myanmar's military has a complex set of objectives and interests relating both to the jade industry and the cultivation of opium poppies which it largely turns a blind eye to. Over the years, the government has made deals with some of the militia, many of whom fund their activities through jade and opium trade, and is therefore weary of cracking down on the business too harshly.

Local officials are easily bought off with bribes and the opium cultivation and trade has been so successful that farmer from other parts of Burma have made their way to the far Eastern borderlands to clear hillsides and plant the lucrative cash crop, a full year's harvest of which can fit into a regular size bag.

Whatever the internal forces driving Myanmar's unregulated jade industry and the deadly scourge of opium cultivation and heroin addiction, the dominant force in both, according to many human rights activists, is China. It is the main destination for both products and the undisputed regional economic giant which cannot be circumvented. Around half of China's $ 5 billion annual sales of jade come from Myanmar and there's little appetite in Beijing for enforcing trading regulations on such a lucrative industry which is dominated by powerful players back in Myanmar.

Adam Dean travelled to the Golden Triangle and Myanmar's northernmost Kachin State do explore Myanmar's murky trade in drugs and stones.
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