Imperial green jade is unique to Burma - and jewellery made from it can sell for millions of dollars on the international market.
But the country’s mining industry is built on suffering: forced and child labour, land confiscation, drug abuse, sexual exploitation and environmental damage - all of which, according to pro-democracy campaigners, have scarred the trade.
More than 20,000 people migrate, or are forced to work for mine companies which are either partly or completely owned by the nation’s military leaders and its business partners.
From mining, to cutting, polishing, trading and selling, the regime’s generals control the gem industry with a vice-like grip. Profits from the lucrative trade filter down only as far as the junta, which spends around US$330million a year on arms - roughly twice the amount it invests in health and education combined. This in a nation ranked among Asia’s poorest; the average person earns less than US$1 a day.
Arun Htin (not his real name), is 30. He is a jade stealer, who sifts by hand through dregs of soil dumped over ground by legal mine workers, for slivers of jade they may have overlooked.
"Our lives are very miserable and difficult," he says. "I use many kinds of drugs; heroin, alcohol,” says Arun. “I smoke heroin which I get from drug-selling shops in Hpakant, in the northern Kachin state. The government soldiers do nothing to close the shops. The drug-sellers just give money to the authority leaders; they bribe them and sell it freely.” The drugs help Arun dull memories of seeing his young friend Moe crushed to death while stealing jade last December. “I started to take heroin to feel happy, because my life is hard.”
In the mines themselves, human rights violations are rampant, according to a report issued by the New York-based advocacy group 8-8-08 for Burma. It details “an environment of impunity and violence,” created by the regime and its partners, in which locals who collect stones from the cast-off are regularly beaten, and even killed.
The report goes on to allege that company bosses and local authorities are complicit in both the sex and drug trades, which has in turn led spawned an HIV/AIDS epidmemic.
UNAIDS estimates 240,000 people in Burma were living with HIV last year.
Growing demand for jade in China has also worried human rights campaigners. Beijing continues to sell arms to Burma and there are some 69 Chinese multinational companies working with the junta. Government regulations mean that foreign corporations are not allowed to own mines but can either form a partnership with an established Burmese company or with the junta.
China is also keen to tap into Burma’s natural resources, in order to feed its growing energy needs.
“If you really want to understand China’s approach to Myanmar, you can look at what’s happening on the ground. Demand in China is leading it's multi-national companies to increase their involvement in Myanmar’s natural resources sector,” says Matthew Smith, project co-coordinator of the Burma Project at EarthRights International.
“That in turn is contradictory to China’s foreign policy of peaceful co-existence and has a demonstrative impact on the ground in terms of human rights abuses.”
While activists have urged Beijing to do more in order to force the Burmese regime to improve its human rights track record, analysts have warned that China will not apply overt political pressure, for fear of creating instability in the region. However, informal lobbying is thought to take place, based on concerns for Burma's growing ethnic Chinese population and for Chinese business interests.
“I doubt China has the intention to bring about progress because both they and India have a notion of stability in Burma - and that stability is provided by the military,” says Aung Naing Oo, a Burmese political analyst based in Thailand. “If the military disappears, they think the sea of stability will disappear and Burma will disintegrate into ethnic conflicts.”
He notes, however, that the Chinese government has begun speaking with Burmese opposition groups, to gauge the current situation. And he adds that political dialogue with the military, rather than a continuation of policies that isolate the junta, could potentially act as a springboard to implement gradual reform.
Arun Htin and others affected by the policies of this particularly brutal regime can only hope they live to see the end of the human rights abuses that have so brutally characterised the long rule of the Burmese junta.