Thursday, December 4, 2014

The Rohingya are not alone: no comfort for any of the poor or marginalized in Myanmar

 “Hpakant is where Satan slowly called me to hell.”

               --La Htoi, 34-year-old jade broker and recovering heroin addict


On Sunday the New York Times published this harrowing story and accompanying video.  

Searching for Burmese Jade, and Finding Misery

Video Feature: Jade’s Journey Marked by Drugs and Death

There are other incredibly good (and disturbing articles on the Myanmar/Chinese jade trade, and the Hpakant mines in the northern Kachin state; this is not a new issue.  I try to stay focused on Aceh and Indonesia, and look towards Myanmar only when I’m alerted to some new and hideous thing the government (or group of monks bent on ethnic cleansing) does to further imperil the Rohingya.  But this article convinced me that justice for the Rohingya is far, far in the distance.  Again, another minority is abused and abandoned.  Miners are encouraged to use heroin to work multiple shifts and steel themselves to the backbreaking labor, and of course become addicted, losing all their income.  Government officials turn a blind eye to the overt drug trade in and near the mines—the price of jade, after all, has skyrocketed in recent months due to increased demand by China’s middle class.  The article quotes a Myanmar health professional as reporting that there is no technology to manufacture heroin in Myanmar; it is coming directly from China, which has the most to gain from the mines’ jade production. 


The article reports that the majority of profits, which should be making the Myanmar government wealthy, “remain in control of elite members of the military, the rebel leaders fighting them for greater autonomy, and the Chinese financiers with whom both sides collude to smuggle billions of dollars’ worth of the gem into China . . . . Such rampant corruption has not only robbed the government of billions in tax revenue for rebuilding after decades of military rule, it has also helped finance a bloody ethnic conflict and unleashed an epidemic of heroin use and H.I.V. infection among the Kachin minority who work the mines.”

Myanmar has no viable substance abuse treatment or methadone programs and no street outreach for IV drug users.


“At a time when Myanmar is experimenting with democratic governance after nearly 50 years of military dictatorship, its handling of the jade industry has become a test of the new civilian leaders and their commitment to supporting human rights and rooting out corruption, as well as an early check on whether they will reject the former junta’s kleptocratic dealings with China.
So far, experts say, they have failed.”

So, how do we think the Rohingya will fare, with Myanmar’s treatment of the Kachin as an example?

“The government says it keeps [Mitkyia, the capital of Kachin] closed because of sporadic fighting with the Kachin rebel army, but activists see a darker purpose: to hide the illegal jade and drug trades flourishing there. The only foreigners allowed past the military checkpoints, they say, are the Chinese who run the mines or go there to buy gems.”

And not to get sidetracked, but doesn’t this sound eerily like Big Palm as well as the subject of a future blog, the Freeport copper mine in Papua?

As the article concedes, no one smells completely like a rose in the Kachin state. The Kachin rebels (K.I.A.) extract a 50% payoff from companies to run the mines, and as far as I know do little to ease the suffering of their fellow countrymen working there. They also  work with Chinese companies to smuggle jade through the jungle into China.  “Yet the fighters’ spoils pale in comparison to those enjoyed by the powerful Burmese military elite, whose companies receive the choicest tracts of mining land from the government, according to miners and international rights groups. Like the K.I.A., some military officers are also involved in smuggling, extracting bribes to allow the illicit practice, activists say.
“The top dogs are the Burmese military,” a representative of Global Witness, reports.

So now, in Myanmar, the government, eager to be seen as pro-democratic, pro-little guy (except of course for the Rohingya) as possible, is now denying that smuggling is a major problem, or that heroin use is widespread, even condoned, at mine sites, even though it is losing billions a year in revenue and “a sizable majority of Kachin youths are addicts. The World Health Organization has said about 30 percent of injecting drug users in Myitkyina have contracted H.I.V.”

Some anti-drug activists believe the government is distributing heroin to weaken the ethnic insurgency, with the military allowing pushers past their checkpoints. “Heroin is their weapon,” he said.

The article lays most of the blame at the doorstep of China, with its unquenchable thirst for jade and the greed of its businessmen invested in the mines.  Much as I would like to join the party, I cannot see why this tragedy does not need to be addressed by the Myanmar government itself.  It sure hasn’t shown that it cares about protecting its citizens.  It’s losing money on the mine so the continuous flow of wealth isn’t the issue.  I’m beginning to think that even with this new, hopeful government, no one really gives a crap.  I wonder if they will change their tune when Myanmar has a higher HIV rate than southern Africa. By then it will be too late.  HIV will not stop at ethnic borders.  The country is in peril.

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