I am taking the liberty of using the title of Bertil Lintner’s famous book “Land of Jade”1 to bring attention to the current social realities in Kachin State, my homeland. It is well known that Kachin State produces 90 percent of the world’s most prized jade and, in the process, can generate annual revenue as high as US$31 billion in just one year.2 That is equivalent to 39 percent of Myanmar’s total GDP in 2019, and is 53 times higher than the official government expenditure on public health for the country in the same year. Clearly, the public health system and, consequently, health of the people in general are not on the list of priorities for investing the wealth that the jade mines in my homeland generate.
At the same time, the jade mines are notorious for a whole host of problems, from appalling working conditions and wages to conflict, severe environmental destruction, contamination and pollution. While a small group among Myanmar’s elite is earning huge sums from the jade business, landslides in the mining areas routinely occur, robbing the lives of hundreds of poor men and women, young and old, along with their hopes and dreams.3 These people are mostly migrants from different parts of the country, trying to escape poverty at home by seeking to eke out a living by searching for jade in the rubble left behind by big mining companies. Elliott Prasse-Freeman has recently referred to this desperate situation as a “necroeconomy” in which people’s labour becomes unnecessary only when they are finally submerged under the earth.4
Myanmar is a very diverse country with many different ethnic groups. The majority Bamar (Burman) population lives in the central plains, which are surrounded by hills and mountain ranges inhabited by a wide variety of nationality peoples. Myanmar is also rich in natural resources, and most of these are located in the ethnic states. This includes Kachin State, situated in the upper north of the country bordering India and China.
Like other ethnic regions in the country, Kachin State has also suffered decades of armed conflict. Fighting between the national armed forces and the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO) started in the early 1960s and continues until the present day. The KIO was established in 1961 to achieve equal rights and autonomy for the Kachin people and currently aims to create a federal union based on democratic principles. In addition to the lack of political rights, economic grievances and anger over what is regarded as systemic discrimination in support of a long-term policy of “Bamarnisation” by central governments have all played a key role in the emergence and determination of the Kachin nationality movement.
It should also be added that the extent, scale and intensity of extractivism in Kachin State is not only confined to the jade mining sector nor that particular geographical area. By extractivism in this commentary, I am referring to Hamza Hamouchene’s definition of:
“activities that overexploit natural resources destined particularly for export to world markets. As such, it is not limited to minerals and oil: it extends to productive activities which overexploit land, water and biodiversity, such as agribusiness, intensive forestry, industrial fish farming and mass tourism.”5
Today the entire physical and social landscape of Kachin State is being shaped and reshaped by the dictates of extractivism. Our natural resources are being extracted and exported to an extent, and at a pace, unlike any previous time in the history of the state, contributing to severe ecological and social damage, including displacement, conflict, soil erosion, deforestation, water pollution, loss of food sovereignty and the deterioration of biodiversity. Rampant extraction and exploitation have also further fuelled armed conflicts as the Myanmar military tries to gain complete control of mineral-rich areas, such as Tanai and Hpakant townships, by launching “regional clearance” operations that have been internationally condemned by the United Nations and many human rights bodies.6
Before we examine the current situation further, it is necessary to first pay a brief visit to the past.
Old problems, new intensity
Extraction is not new to Kachin State. In fact, the mining of stones that were regarded as precious, such as amber and jade, can be traced back to pre-colonial times. Across the centuries, extraction has played a crucial role in building geopolitical relations, smoothing social interactions and cementing kinship formation. As a result, they have become an integral part of the traditions that we hold dear and make us feel Kachin.
As an example, jadeite mining began to play a crucial role from the end of the eighteenth century in terms of negotiating or re-negotiating relationships with neighbouring actors, such as from Yunnan in China or Assam in India, as well as with Shan chiefs, Burmese monarchs and, subsequently, British colonizers. The Kachin chiefs also played an important role in allocating mining rights to affiliated kinship groups, thereby distributing economic benefits more widely among the local population and helping determine the exchange of certain ritual goods and wealth assets among different kinship groups within the framework of patriarchy relations.7 Jade, in essence, became an important asset and currency in social and economic relations.
Against this backdrop, mining became a more formal part of the socio-political economy. The collection of taxation was overseen by local chiefs under varying arrangements while the British colonial government, and previously the Burmese kings, received a certain share of revenue. When British colonial rule ended in 1948 and a new independent “Union of Burma” was formed, extractive activities then continued during the parliamentary period (1948-62) as well as after the military coup in 1962 carried out by General Ne Win and, subsequently, his economically disastrous “Burmese Way to Socialism” under the Burma Socialist Programme Party (1962-88). Since this time, the Myanmar military has continued to play a dominant role in national politics.
The mining landscape, however, has been far from static in the field. The situation changed dramatically after the bloody crackdown on the emergent pro-democracy movement in 1988 and the formation of the military State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC: subsequently State Peace and Development Council: SPDC). Choosing a different path from the BSPP, the new junta started to adopt pro-market reforms to open up the country to foreign investment and partially liberalize key economic sectors, including agriculture, fisheries, mining, oil and gas. In the process, Myanmar transformed from a socialist command economy to a centrally-led capitalist economy. Rent accumulated through this transformation, enabling the Myanmar military to consolidate its power against civilian protests and ethnic armed opposition. During this period, monopolistic state-owned enterprises (SOEs) grew and the “state-mediated re-emergence of Myanmar’s bourgeoise”8 (or what we popularly refer to as “the cronies”) was nurtured, shaping into a form of oligarchic capitalism.
Since this time, the central state has consistently favoured SOEs and the class of cronies to carry out large-scale capitalist extraction with big capital and big machines in place of small-scale mining by local peoples. This trend continued during the decade following the introduction of the 2008 constitution and, from 2011, a limited form of parliamentary democracy in which the Myanmar military still played a dominant role. The political and economic reforms introduced by the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) administration (2011-2016) as well as the subsequent National League for Democracy (NLD) administration (2016-21) both continued to favour large companies and foreign investors over Myanmar farmers and workers.
In response to the worrying trends in reform, Land in Our Hands (LIOH), the largest network of smallholder farmers, local farmer and civil society organisations in the country, expressed their concerns in a 2020 analysis:
“Existing land related laws and land administrations in Myanmar are still conflicting with actual land use & practices. The Farmland Law (FLL), the Vacant, Fallow & Virgin Land Management Law (VFVL), and the Forest Law are forcing land titling, criminalizing customary land users and making dispossessions of their ancestral lands. Within these legal frameworks, a lot of unjust land cases are happening such as different forms of land grabbing, largescale land application or land grants, and suing the customary land users.”9
Parallel to these setbacks, Myanmar was declared open for international engagement and investment, and foreign visitors and companies flocked to the new capital at Nay Pyi Taw to sign business agreements. Local voices, however, were largely ignored who were critical of the limited reforms and failure of both the USDP and NLD governments to bring peace and social justice to the country. In many communities, social and economic hardships were deepening.
Myanmar’s short experience of quasi-civilian democracy then came to an end after the leaders of the national armed forces refused to accept the landslide victory of the NLD in the 2020 general election, taking power in a new coup on 1 February 2021 and forming the State Administration Council (SAC). All senior NLD members were arrested, and the security forces cracked down hard on countrywide demonstrations that were largescale and peaceful. These events continued while Covid-19 swept the country, inflicting further loss and deprivation on communities in every state and region.10
Since this time, the SAC has pursued a repressive path in attempting to suppress all opposition and resistance to its takeover by force. Arrests, intimidation, beatings, killings and excessive military power – including long-range artillery and aerial bombings – have been routinely deployed against civilian protest or targets. According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners, as of the beginning of July this year, 2053 civilians or political activists suspected of protest have been killed by the police and army since the SAC takeover and over 11,300 remain in detention.11 Human suffering and the state failures of Myanmar continue.
The structures of extractivism and cronyism entrenched
While the country sinks into deeper political and economic crisis, leaders of the Myanmar armed forces have become ever more reliant on extractivism to try and sustain their rule. Indeed, extractivism has a clear link to the 2021 coup whereby huge wealth accumulation and the desire to sustain it, which comes with control of the mining sector, is widely attributed as one of the main factors driving the ruling generals to re-seize total state control. Most obviously, the coup leader, Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing, controls the two largest parasitic military conglomerates: the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL).
The outreach of both companies is dominant in mining activities today. According, for example, to data reported by the Myanmar Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, the MEHL – through its subsidiary company Myanmar Imperial Jade Co Ltd – held the largest number of jade licences in the country, reaching to over 360 in 2016.12 In addition, the MEHL has created other jade subsidiaries and outsourced licenses to business cronies who can be linked to crimes against humanity and genocidal atrocities committed by the Myanmar military, including war crimes against the Rohingya population.13
The “cronyism” links to the jade trade do not end here. According to a 2020 report by Justice for Myanmar, the Kanbawza (KBZ) group, which benefits from jade mining licences and runs the largest private bank in the country, donated US$2.47 million to military fundraising and another US$2.2 million to the Union Enterprise for Humanitarian Assistance, Resettlement and Development (UEHRD), a public-private partnership chaired by the then State Councillor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.14
The UEHRD, though, is a controversial mechanism, formed to implement government policy in northern Rakhine State after the Rohingya exodus in 2017. Its stated aims include to provide humanitarian assistance to populations affected by violence and to facilitate the return of Rohingya refugees from Bangladesh. To date, however, the UN Fact-Finding Mission found that the UEHRD mechanism further contributed to and consolidated allegations of egregious human rights violations committed by the Myanmar military against the Rohingya population, including “war crimes, crimes against humanity and acts of genocide”.15
The cumulative evidence is disturbing. Although political change was initially painted in the brightest colours by the international community, the military-crony complex has persisted, thrived and grown even more insatiable during Myanmar’s so-called “democratic transition” of the past decade. Another business network, the Shwe Byain Phyu group, with business links to the MEC, MEHL and MGE (Myanmar Gems Enterprise) has similarly won multiple jade mining concessions through its subsidiary companies in the past. More recently, it has acquired a major share in the mobile operator Telenor Myanmar, gaining access to the historical communication data of millions of network users in the country. But, according to The Irrawaddy magazine, one of its shareholders is the daughter of the SAC leader, Min Aung Hlaing, himself.16
It is not, however, just “precious stones” that have fallen prey to the extractive pressures. Timber extraction also intensified, especially after the 1988 coup, similar to other resource exploitation, with Kachin lands again a main target. Between 1988 and 2017, Kachin State suffered from the second highest loss in forest coverage – from 82,300 km2 to 74,200 km2 – in the country, which translates to around 92 percent to 83 percent of the state’s total land area.17 As a result, the total area of humid primary forest, the most biodiverse and carbon-dense form of forest cover, decreased by 3.6% at the present time in Kachin State.18
Tragically, as we face another military coup, reports of uncontrolled logging in many states, including Kachin State, are once again emerging.19 At the same time, nearly 3 million (over 30%) hectares out of Kachin State’s total land area of 8,904,100 hectares have been designated for forest conservation by the central state, more than any other state or region. But there has not been an effective resource protection or land management across the territory at all.
Such exploitive patterns can be traced back to the time of British rule when different areas of colonial Burma were designated for different economic uses: some areas for plantation agriculture, some for mining, and others for timber extraction from so-called “forest reserves”. In modern times, one of the most controversial examples in Kachin State has been the military government-backed tiger conservation project of the World Conservation Society (WCS) in the Hugawng valley, established in 2001. At the time, its programme director, Alan Rabinowitz, was quoted as singing the praises of the junta: “It's much harder to get conservation done in democracies than in communist countries or dictatorships; when a dictatorship decides to establish a reserve, that's that.”20
In the following years, this massive conservation project tried to expel Kachin villagers from their ancestral homes and historic lands. In 2004 and 2010, the area of the national conservation park in the Hugawng valley was expanded further despite strong protests from the local communities. This was no mere accident nor a contradiction in the eyes of those elite actors, but part of a deliberate strategy.21
Such forms of conservation block the access of local peoples to their lands and forests, and subject some of the conserved areas to extraction. Originally called “forest reserves”, these practices follow a similar logic to the British colonisers, which ultimately works to erase people, cultures and natural resources from these areas. At the same time, people with financial and political power gain control of “conserved” territories for profit-making, which can be witnessed in the Hugawng valley with mega agricultural concessions, timber extraction and gold mining sites. Local protests have continued but they have not stemmed the overall tide.22
In 2020, the Kachin and Northern Shan IDP Land Protection Committee published a commentary outlining their key challenges:
“Next, in the 2000s, came the big agribusiness land concessions for various kinds of plantation agriculture (rubber, banana, sugarcane), as well as more big infrastructure projects like the railway. The government, armed groups, immigration officials, local authorities, local militias all cooperated with especially Chinese investors to grab our lands for agriculture projects…We lost control of more of our lands…Behind the big official projects, even though they may be stalled, cancelled or continued later, many little projects and extractions always followed, all of them having deep impacts on the villages we had been forced to leave behind.”23
As this clarifies, extractivism occurs not only in the typical forms discussed in this commentary, such as mining and logging. It also manifests itself in the monoculture plantations which are rapidly expanding across Kachin State, heavily exploiting our soil and freshwater systems. The Kachin and Northern Shan IDP Land Protection Committee speaks to the exact warning given by Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 2015, the International Year of Soils, that soil as a natural resource is limited and is not recoverable within a human lifespan. It is a highly valuable gift of nature but it is most frequently ignored.24
Sadly, such warnings are being ignored in Kachin State and Myanmar more broadly. According to a report by the Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG), chemical intensive tissue-cultured banana production for export across the border to China could earn up to a net profit of over US$ 5,000 per hectare, which is equivalent to over 3 million MMK per acre.25 And it is estimated that the Myanmar government accumulated an estimated withholding tax income of US$6.52 million for the fiscal year 2019-20.26 But if we weigh in the hidden costs – ecological and social – of sustaining the banana trade to China, these businesses undoubtedly prove disastrous for both the short term and long term. By early 2018, nearly 400,000 hectares of agricultural concessions had been allocated to agribusinesses in Kachin State.27 But while outside investors and elites become rich, the local people remain poor.
Kachin State is endowed with an almost uninterrupted landscape of fertile soil, rivers, lakes and streams capable of supporting smallholder agriculture, which is the livelihood of the majority of the rural population. Yet these resources are being treated as disposable money-making devices to enrich a relatively small group of local and non-local elites, opportunistic middlemen, military officers, ethnic armed groups and militias. Such realities are pervasive across Kachin State today.
Currently, in an especially egregious example, we are witnessing the slow death of the Myitsone area due to uninterrupted large-scale gold mining despite strong protests from the local communities.28 Myitsone is a national landmark area not only for the people living in Kachin State but also for the whole country. It is where the N’Mai and Mali Rivers meet, giving birth to the Irrawaddy River as it flows across the length of the country. It is a bloodline for local livelihoods, transportation and the formation of societies. In 2011, due to intense public pressures, President Thein Sein suspended the construction of a proposed 6,000 MW Myitsone dam to be built by China Power Investment Corporation in a joint venture with the Ministry of Electric Power and the Asia World Company.29 This, however, was by no means the end of the story.
While construction of the mega dam was stopped, gold mining activities quickly developed in the area and expanded significantly during the following years. Kachin people imagine “heaven” as a “gold kingdom” (“ja mungdan”). But, in reality, gold has brought nightmares to many people, including large numbers of internally displaced persons (IDPs), as it has destroyed their villages, turned rivers lifeless, and killed local economies.30 Adding to the disaffection, it can also divide local communities when some leaders, in relatively better-off social positions, say that local cronies making profits from our natural resources are somehow better than non-local cronies because at least the former give something back. No justification, however, is worth the sacrifice that poor people have to suffer in order to catch some breadcrumbs from the grand feast among the rich. We simply cannot accept this form of economy.
This “great transformation”31, to use the term of Karl Polanyi, of the wider and hugely diverse Kachin ecological landscape has been made possible through the designation of over 9 million hectares of Kachin State as “unused” or “vacant” land by the central state under the new 2012 land laws.32 These laws, however, do not recognise traditional and customary land tenure systems that are practised in the country’s ethnic states, which are mostly informal agreements within and between communities and without formal documents. The consequences have been alarming. Giant economic land concessions, along with expanding mining and logging sites, on such apparently “unused” and “vacant” land are literally squeezing out historic farmlands, taungya (upland cultivation) systems, natural forests and the social reproduction sites of our local communities.
One prominent example is the over 200,000-acre concession in Hpakant and Tanai townships, Kachin State, which was granted to the Yuzana Company by the military regime in 2004. Despite opposition from the local population against this massive land grab, the project went ahead.33 Located in the WCS tiger conservation project area described above, the proposed plan was to produce biofuel crops, such as cassava, jatropha and sugarcane, but the project proved a disaster for the local people. In July 2021, not long after the SAC coup, the KIO seized the area granted to Yuzana Company and announced that no one should occupy the land to avoid “unwanted social conflicts” for the time-being.34
In the future, therefore, two steps will be crucial: seeing how a process of land restitution and redistribution to the original owners and local communities might successfully be developed: and supporting the regeneration of an undisturbed and once pristine forest ecology laid bare by the Yuzana Company. These will be positive and reformative actions, setting an important precedent in shaping a future system of democratic land governance in Kachin State and the country more broadly.35