Like most things connected to money and profit in Myanmar, there is a sinister side to the north’s resurgent economy, a subtext that generally eludes visitors’ attention. Still, at least one travel book, Nicholas Greenwood’s original and often very funny “Bradt Guide to Burma,” has picked up on it. Not only are the owners of Mandalay’s popular Lucky Hotel close relatives of the former Sino-Shan opium warlord Khun Sa, Greenwood tells us, but another “retired” drug kingpin, Lo Hsing Han, is also involved in the Mandalay property market and may even have a hand in the innocuous but lucrative trade in secondhand Japanese cars that are driven to the border and sold to dealers from Yunnan.
Mandalay is a place where all kinds of deals are made. One report in the Bangkok Post quoted Mandalay residents as saying that “there are three lines of business here — the green line, the red line and the white line. That’s jade, rubies and heroin.”
Myanmar, along with countries such as Pakistan and Laos, is one of the world’s premier cultivators of opium. Papaver somniferum, the Eurasian poppy, grows ideally at just over 1,000 meters above sea level, an altitude readily found on the Myanmar side of the “Golden Triangle.” The drug is hardly new to Southeast Asia, where it has been used as a stimulant and painkiller for centuries. Burmese kings took a stronger stand against the drug in the past than modern governments, it seems, punishing offenders by pouring molten lead down their throats. Despite protests from China, which is genuinely concerned about the spread of drug addiction in their own territory, the present leaders of Myanmar appear to have a more lenient attitude toward dealers, an attitude encouraged, it is said, by generous payoffs. The drug syndicates’ precise balance sheets may not be available, but it can safely be assumed that profits from narcotics in Myanmar are staggering.
Although narcotics are one of 23 listed items officially banned from cross-border trade, contraband of this kind is generally ignored by the military personnel who supervise checkpoints. There are routine public demonstrations of law enforcement, such as well-publicized gatherings of military leaders at which heaps of narcotics are burned. But these performances are understood to be mainly for the benefit of international drug agencies.
The actual volume of opium production and heroin export from the Myanmar sections of the Golden Triangle is, in fact, increasing. The drug trade, conservatively estimated to produce annual profits of more than $1 billion, is widely agreed to be the military’s main source of income for arms payments. Two thousand tons of opium and 200 tons of heroin are said to exit Myanmar annually. Mandalay residents know that heroin profits are funding the building of commercial complexes and the acquisition by Chinese businessmen and junta members of pieces of prime real estate. However, charges that the government is involved in the drug trade are virulently denied by leaders for whom mendacity has become second nature.
Profits aside, the heroin trade in this region is a potential source of racial conflict and a real threat to the fragile peace achieved along the northern border. The Kokang and Wa hill-tribe guerrillas who have agreed to end their resistance to Yangon have done so only on condition that they can still keep their weapons and continue to deal in opium from their bases in the Golden Triangle. Resentment of tribes like these, whose leaders are often seen flaunting their money in the nightclubs and restaurants of Mandalay, goes hand in hand with envy of the city’s increasingly prosperous Chinese business community.
The north’s trade in rubies is less contentious than heroin, but it is still extremely profitable. Burmese rubies are considered the finest in the world. Those known in the trade as “pigeon-blood rubies,” a variety unique to Myanmar, command the highest prices. Rubies were much favored by Burmese royalty in former times, and occult powers were associated with the stone. Carrying one into battle was said to make the wearer invincible. The country’s main ruby mines are located around Mogok, a mountain town northeast of Mandalay. A strategically important and by all accounts a pleasant town, it is no tourist draw: Few people other than gem specialists and the Chinese buyers who have been granted special permits are ever allowed past the formidable security shield that surrounds it.
If the narcotics trade has traditionally been run by the ethnic armies of the Wa and Kokang, the lucrative jade trade has belonged to Myanmarese and Kachin dealers and smugglers. The Chinese have also made inroads recently into the trade in jadeite, which, like precious gems, has always been government-managed. The Chinese have long had a special appreciation for Burmese jadeite and have imported vast quantities of it for centuries. China’s finest jade figures in fact, such as those on display in Beijing’s Forbidden City Museum and the National Museum collection in Taipei, or those reserved for the top end of their export market, are carved from Burmese jadeite.
For decades, the richest deposits of jadeite lay in an area controlled by the Kachin Independence Army. Large quantities of jade were spirited over the border into China, profits from its sale providing the main funding for the Kachin resistance movement. Officially, jade from mines near the northern town of Mogaung can only be sold through licensed shops monopolized by the military. A security cordon around the town, which is strictly off-limits to foreigners and unauthorized visitors, appears at first to confirm that the official regulations controlling the trade are being enforced, but Myanmarese observers who have visited the Mogaung area tell of an illegal jade market where Chinese buyers, paying generous cuts to the local police, acquire as much as they want in open defiance of the sales ban.
Jade has been described by the Chinese, who have carved the stone into ornamental and ritual objects for almost 7,000 years, as a “symbol of protection, health and strength, something fortunate to own and felicitous to give.” With fortune smiling on the north’s ethnic Chinese, we can expect to see more of this powerful, milky-green stone being worn in the future.