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Jade and Drugs

Photographer: Seng Mai


This feature story won the emerging photographer category at the Yangon Photo Festival 2017.


Tens of thousands of Myanmar youth come to Hpakant, the land of the world’s rarest and valuable types of jade, with the hope and dreams of escaping from poverty and making their fortunes. But many of these migrant workers, instead, have their dreams of a better future dissolve into a nightmare of addiction, as they fall into the trap of cheap heroin and other drugs.


Hpakant town and region lies in the far northern most Kachin state in Myanmar. It has a reputation as a wild outback region, harsh and impoverished, that nevertheless, produces huge wealth…for some. Underground can be found the rare mineral jadeite, the world’s highest quality jade. In Hpakant, at the coalface of jade extraction, the cost of a dose of heroin is 3000 Myanmar Kyats (about 2.3 USD.) Easily hooked, the dreams of a better future begotten from work excavating the jade, many living on the edges of the mines and scavenging through the dumped soil and rock for jade rests, are quickly lost in the need for drugs to feed the habit, and the debilitating physical and mental decline that accompanies it.


Today, drug addiction has become one of the biggest problems facing impoverished Kachin State. Despite increasing numbers of women addicts, there is no rehabilitation center for women in Kachin State. Panjasan, a community-based anti-narcotic Christian organization, has opened 24 rehabilitation centers in Kachin and Shan State, but only one of them in the Kachin state capital Myitkyina, 112 km away from the mines, treats female addicts. Authorities estimate 80 percent of the women in Myitkyina prison, in the Kachin state capital, are there because of the drug addiction. Many place the blame on that lack of a rehabilitation center for women drug addicts.


A minimum prison sentence of 10 years is the norm for drug cases in Myanmar. In a report done by Global Witness, cited as the result of a 12-month investigation and published in October 2015, the jade industry in Myanmar was said to be worth up to US$31 billion in 2014 alone, a figure that is nearly half of all of Myanmar’s GDP. But little, the report said, of the wealth, it generated was returned to the people or the state. Highly prized in China for many centuries, the Myanmar jadeite is sent abroad to other Asian lands for cut and processing into end sale products, such as jewellery.