Smuggling is endemic in Myanmar – jade, opium and human trafficking

Photo: Comune Parma/CC BY-SA 2.0

Could trafficking in Myanmar be completely eradicated

By Joanne Liew

A brief look at Myanmar’s situation

 A 2015 report estimated Myanmar’s jade industry to be worth up to US$31 billion in 2014 alone, which is approximately half of the country’s Gross Domestic Profit (GDP). However, Myanmar’s central government earns almost nothing, as most of this natural resource is smuggled across the borders to its neighbouring countries. Myanmar has also been hailed as the largest producer of opium in the Southeast Asia region, which, in turn, fuels related drug trafficking (especially heroin) activities across its borders. Last but not least, human trafficking remains a growing concern as noted in the 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report.

Understanding the cause of this current state of affairs


Control of Myanmar’s jade industry has swung back and forth between the military elite and the ethnic rebel leaders for decades. With the army wrestling control from the rebels in the 1990s, proceeds from smuggling vast quantities of jade into China, Myanmar’s top customer, have largely boosted the wealth of the military and their allies while leaving thousands of ethnic miners penniless. Dubbed as the “biggest natural resource heist in modern history”, military leaders stand to lose out on millions of dollars with the implementation of a more transparent jade industry. Thus, fear that Myanmar’s new democratic administration would soon implement such a system has only intensified the rate of mining and smuggling of jade.


Impoverished remote regions of Myanmar, in particular, Shan Shan in the north, have little choice but to cultivate opium due to poverty and food insecurity. The lack of running water, electricity and accessible roads has resulted in only viable source of income. Opium is sold through a network of secret traders, which is controlled by the various rebel groups and pro-government militias, before being smuggled to China and other Southeast Asian countries.

Human Trafficking

Myanmar is predominantly a source country for men, women and children. Men are trafficked to Thailand and Malaysia for forced labour on the pretext of labour migration while women and young girls are trafficked to China for forced marriage. Due to the poor socio-economic development of the nation, Myanmar’s rural population faces an increased risk of exploitation. This is further aggravated by significant levels of corruption within the governmental institution, preventing law enforcement actors from cracking down on human trafficking activities.

Also, there has been an increasing phenomenon of internal trafficking, where women and girls are trafficked from villages in the central dry zone areas to urban areas with better economic conditions for sexual exploitation. On the contrary, men are trafficked to less populated zones to work in fishing and construction industries.

The importance of eradicating this smuggling problem

 Myanmar’s jade industry plays a vital role in incentivising and fuelling armed conflict as the military and ethnic rebels continue to fight over the most precious resource in Myanmar. As a result, “100,000 people have been driven from their homes by airstrikes, shelling and other military offences in the Kachin state” said Paul Donowitz, Global Witness’ Campaign Leader. Kachin is home to the largest jade mining site in Myanmar.

Both jade and opium trafficking have also taken a massive toll on the environment.

The use of explosives and heavy machinery to increase the rate at which jade is mined have striped Kachin’s jungle to a barren landscape of dust and brown. It has also destabilised the earth, increasing the risks of landslides. As a result, miners are at a higher risk of injury and death.

Due to the demand for opium, mountains are being deforested for opium production. Similarly, this exposes the ground for erosion and landslide. The soil becomes barren as a result of intensive cultivation.

There are significant implications from human trafficking. Myanmar suffers an economic and cultural loss from an outflow of its people.

The way forward

 In 2016, Myanmar’s new government announced a moratorium on new mining licences and a freeze on all renewals of existing jade permits until a reformed legal framework is in place. While hailed as a “game changer” by Juman Kubba, senior campaigner at Global Witness, it should be noted that the military still holds considerable power as it runs crucial government institutions. This allows them to remain a potent political and economic force in the nation. As a result, they have the power to prevent the implementation of any significant reform, as they stand to lose millions with an increasing demand of jade from China.

As part of a project organised by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, opium is slowly being replaced with coffee. Coffee is expected to allow farmers to earn a higher income than from opium, which has massive variations in cost price – making it an unstable source of revenue. However, with a strong demand for opium from China and its neighbouring countries, the hope that opium production and its related trafficking would cease is dim at best.

Attempts to curb human trafficking have so far been ineffective due to massive levels of corruption within the system itself, hindering the enforcement of human trafficking laws.

As a concluding note, it is suggested that to aid Myanmar’s current efforts; international assistance is required to crack down on smuggling. In particular, China – as most of the trafficked items are smuggled out of Myanmar through its long boundary line with China. China stands to gain in the long-term, if Myanmar’s jade industry is sustained. Myanmar’s jade has become indispensable to some of China’s border cities local economy. With increased levels of mining to meet the demand of trafficked jade, the sustainability of Myanmar’s jade industry would be threatened. In turn, this could cause the local economies of China’s border cities to destabilise in the long-term. Therefore, Myanmar stands to benefit should China assist in cracking down smuggling at their shared border.