Sunday, January 13, 2008

Burma villagers sift for junta's glitzy scraps - Military scoops up nation's lucrative gem, gold deposits

By Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times

Kharbar, Burma -- Squatting along the rocky banks of the Nmai Hka River, villagers labor from dawn till dusk over large wooden pans, scrounging for crumbs from the junta's table.

Children barely big enough to swirl the heavy slurry toil alongside men and women, doing backbreaking work that exposes them to toxic mercury.

Every few minutes, they pause and tilt their dripping pans to catch the sunlight, hoping for the glint from a few golden flecks that haven't been scooped up with the rest of Burma's vast mineral wealth by the ruling generals and their cronies.

On a recent day by the river, Ja Bu, 46, strained to lift shovel loads of slurry as a 10-year-old boy, ankle-deep in the cold, muddy water, worked a pan big enough for him to bathe in.

Sixty miles west, Ja Bu's younger brother was searching for jade in the drainage ditch of a mine exhausted years ago by the junta. The few dollars that Ja Bu and her brother manage to scratch together each day from what the generals didn't take buys food, clothes and shelter for 10 people.

During 45 years of military rule, the generals have steadily consolidated control over the country's most lucrative mining areas. They have amassed enormous wealth from gems, minerals, timber and other vast natural resources, and left most of Burma's people poor.

The junta tightly controls access to its large gem and jade mines, but remote places such as Kharbar offer a glimpse of a struggling people's helpless, yet strengthening, rage against the government.

The junta's violent crackdown against pro-democracy street demonstrations in September, the largest in two decades, sparked new calls for an international boycott of the government's biggest moneymakers, including rubies, sapphires, oil and natural gas.

First lady Laura Bush has urged jewelers not to buy gems from Burma, also known as Myanmar. Some of the world's biggest names in precious stones, such as Cartier, Bulgari and Tiffany, say they won't sell Burma's blood-tainted treasures anymore.

The U.S. Senate passed legislation last month to tighten sanctions against the junta by banning imports of that country's rubies and high-quality jade. The House already passed its version of the bill but must act again on the Senate-passed version to approve minor differences.

But as Western shoppers shun Burma's jewels, buyers from neighboring China are rushing in to scoop up the country's gold and jade, highly prized by the growing middle class and by the fabulously wealthy, eager to find more ways to flaunt their new wealth.

It's one of the main reasons why the junta is still strong after years of sanctions: When Western countries try to tighten the economic noose, neighbors led by China, India and Thailand loosen the knot by increasing trade and investment in Burma.

Government officials say jade replaced rubies as the main attraction at a state-run auction held recently in Rangoon, the capital, also known as Yangon. The fourth auction this year, it raised about $125 million for the junta in badly needed foreign currency.

But the junta doesn't let much trickle down to places like Kharbar, a remote northern stretch near the Himalayan foothills, close to the Chinese border.

It's a spectacularly beautiful, unforgiving place where villagers live in thatched huts with walls woven from bamboo. Thin as cardboard, they are flimsy shelter against frigid winter winds. And as the cost of food and fuel rises, so does the villagers' resentment, which roils like the rapids of the Nmai Hka that taunts them with tiny gifts of gold.

Dong Shi, a wiry man in a green sweater splitting at the seams, has been working the brown slough and bamboo sluices here for three years.

On a good day, he finds $8 worth of gold flakes, the biggest about the size of a pinhead. Like other prospectors, he must pay $250, or more than half an average person's annual income here, to the owner of the land for permission to pan just 10 square feet of riverbank.

After Dong Shi pays his stake's owner, his share of the diesel to run a generator and sluice pumps, school fees for his four kids and other mounting expenses, he has little left.

"We eat all that I earn," he said. "I have nothing left in my pocket. Tomorrow, I go back to work on the river, just to have some more food."

It is grueling, risky work. To separate gold particles from the slurry, miners squeeze drops of mercury from strips of cloth soaked in quicksilver, exposing them and the river fish they eat to dangerous levels of the heavy metal, which can damage kidneys and the nervous system.

For all the prospectors' pain and risk, most pans come up bust. So they dig deeper, push the limits harder.

Desperate to hit pay dirt, dreaming of finding a rare nugget instead of just flecks, some villagers rig up hand pumps onshore to homemade breathing hoses, and wade into the middle of the river. They work for up to three hours at time under water.

As the economic chasm widens between Burma's people and their corrupt military rulers, places that were once synonymous with the sparkle of precious stones are now earning a darker reputation as hotbeds of political dissent.

One is Mogok, for centuries the entrance to the Valley of Rubies, which lies slightly more than 200 miles south of Kharbar but might as well be a thousand, because the government rarely allows foreign visitors to see for themselves what is happening there.

Some of the earliest protests against rising fuel prices were held in Mogok last summer before they spread to the capital and grabbed world attention. In November, more than 50 Buddhist monks defied the junta's crackdown and marched peacefully through Mogok.

Anger has been boiling beneath the surface there for years as the junta pushed out more small-scale miners, who are left to search the dregs of abandoned mines, said Soe Myint, a leader in exile of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy.

"Most of the gems are mined by government firms, or those affiliated with the junta, the generals' relatives and cronies," said Myint, who was elected to Burma's parliament in 1990 and then jailed for 14 years when the military rejected Suu Kyi's victory at the polls.

"Whether it's jade, rubies or sapphires, locals cannot mine them anymore. They only get a very small portion. That's why Mogok is at the forefront of the demonstrations. The local people have nothing else to do because all the land has been confiscated by the government and government companies."

The trade in gemstones, the country's third-largest source of revenue, is dominated by the Union of Burma Economic Holdings Limited, a consortium co-owned by the Defense Ministry and military officers who hold the bulk of the company's shares.

The government tightly controls access to the country's gem and jade mines, but it's possible to get a hint of the suffering that has stirred so much anger against the junta by traveling north to the rough roads and fast-moving rivers around Kharbar. Here, two rivers fed by Himalayan glaciers converge to give birth to the Irrawaddy River, the broad backbone of Burma.

Long canoes with ear-splitting motors are the only way into the region's most promising gold panning sites, one of the last places where small-scale miners can legally eke out a living. The area also is home to some of the world's best jade deposits.

But the junta shut the biggest operations down two years ago, and the flood of cash from Chinese businesspeople suddenly dropped off. The local economy suffered more as most of the jade trade moved south to Mandalay, where more than 100 factories cut and polish the stones, mainly to supply growing demand in China.

Source: San Francisco Chronicle

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