Burmese troops scramble to protect 50-tonne jade boulder

Trade in the gem is worth around 15% of the country's GDP – but the industry is mired in controversy and allegations of corruption

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The Independent Online

Troops have been dispatched to secure and protect a huge jade boulder discovered in the north of Burma by a small-time prospector. The boulder may weigh anything up to 50 tonnes.

Reports said the boulder, part of which remains trapped in the earth, was found around ten days ago by the miner in the Hpakant region of Kachin state, the heart of Burma’s gem trade. Once word got out, troops went to secure the boulder.

“It’s being guarded by soldiers,” minister Lajun Ngan Seng told the Associated Press. He said efforts would be made to completely unearth the piece of jade, which officials believe may be 18ft in length. “Then, we’ll decide what to do with it.”

Burma is one the world’s largest producers of jade and the majority of it comes from the far north of Burma. An analysis carried out last year by Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, suggested the trade was worth up to £4.8bn, or around 15 per cent of the country’s GDP.

But the gem trade is mired in controversy. Most of the business remains controlled by senior military officials or their cronies, a number of them Chinese businessman, and the best of the gems are usually smuggled to China. Many of the miners who flock to  Hpakant with the dream of striking it rich live in wretched conditions and are often addicted to heroin.

“This is an area where the Burmese army has been very active, showing how they are trying to secure strategic locations where there are natural resources,” said Mark Farmaner, of the Burma Campaign UK.

While Western nations have suspended most sanctions against Burma since President Thein Sein released the majority of political prisoners and embarked on a transition towards greater democracy three years ago, the prohibition on the trade of gems remains in place.

The situation is made more precarious difficult because of its location in Kachin state, where ethnic rebels have been involved in an insurgency against the central government since Burma won its independence in 1948.

Hpakant, located 220 miles north of the city of Mandalay, has been closed off to large miners since 2011 because of renewed fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army. But individual miners, sometimes working with just their hands, have carried on prospecting.

Reports said it was one such prospector, a man called Aung Naing Win, who discovered the boulder in the village of Wei Kan, 15 miles from the town of Hpakant. He has reportedly been detained by troops, who said they were concerned about his safety.

The troops dispatched to secure the boulder belonged to the Light Infantry Division 101. They have prevented access to the area and have stopped villagers from prospecting close to the site. This has created hardship for those who depend upon the jade mines for their livelihoods.