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Panning for Myanmar's leftovers

The nation's enormous mineral wealth is largely under state control. Small-scale miners must eke out a living.

December 24, 2007|Paul Watson | Times Staff Writer

KHARBAR, MYANMAR — Squatting along the rocky banks of the Nmai Hka River, villagers labor from dawn till dusk over large wooden pans, scrounging for crumbs from the junta's table.

Children barely big enough to swirl the heavy slurry toil alongside men and women, doing backbreaking work that exposes them to toxic mercury.

Every few minutes, they pause and tilt their dripping pans to catch the sunlight, hoping for the glint from a few golden flecks that haven't been scooped up with the rest of Myanmar's vast mineral wealth by the ruling generals and their cronies.

On a recent day by the river, Ja Bu, 46, strained to lift shovel loads of slurry as a 10-year-old boy, ankle-deep in the cold, muddy water, worked a pan big enough for him to bathe in.

Sixty miles west, Ja Bu's younger brother was searching for jade in the drainage ditch of a mine exhausted years ago by the junta. The few dollars that Ja Bu and her brother manage to scratch together each day from what the generals didn't take buys food, clothes and shelter for 10 people.

During 45 years of military rule, the generals have steadily consolidated control over the country's most lucrative mining areas. They have amassed enormous wealth from gems, minerals, timber and other vast natural resources, and left most of Myanmar's people poor.

The junta tightly controls access to its large gem and jade mines, but remote places such as Kharbar offer a glimpse of a struggling people's helpless, yet strengthening, rage against the government.

The junta's violent crackdown against pro-democracy street demonstrations in September, the largest in two decades, sparked new calls for an international boycott of the government's biggest moneymakers, including rubies, sapphires, oil and natural gas.

First Lady Laura Bush has urged jewelers not to buy gems from Myanmar, also known as Burma. Some of the world's biggest names in precious stones, such as Cartier, Bulgari and Tiffany, say they won't sell Myanmar's blood-tainted treasures anymore.

The U.S. Senate passed legislation Wednesday to tighten sanctions against the junta by banning imports of that country's rubies and high-quality jade. The House already passed its version of the bill but must act again on the Senate-passed version to approve minor differences.

But as Western shoppers shun Myanmar's jewels, buyers from neighboring China are rushing in to scoop up the country's gold and jade, highly prized by the growing middle class and by the fabulously wealthy, eager to find more ways to flaunt their new wealth.

It's one of the main reasons why the junta is still strong after years of sanctions: When Western countries try to tighten the economic noose, neighbors led by China, India and Thailand loosen the knot by increasing trade and investment in Myanmar.

Government officials say jade replaced rubies as the main attraction at a state-run auction held last month in Yangon, the country's principal city, also known as Rangoon. The fourth auction this year, it raised about $125 million for the junta in badly needed foreign currency.

But the junta doesn't let much trickle down to places like Kharbar, a remote northern stretch near the Himalayan foothills, close to the Chinese border.

It's a spectacularly beautiful, unforgiving place where villagers live in thatched huts with walls woven from bamboo. Thin as cardboard, they are flimsy shelter against frigid winter winds. And as the cost of food and fuel rises, so does the villagers' resentment, which roils like the rapids of the Nmai Hka that taunts them with tiny gifts of gold.

Dong Shi, a wiry man in a green sweater splitting at the seams, has been working the brown slough and bamboo sluices here for three years.

On a good day, he finds $8 worth of gold flakes, the biggest about the size of a pinhead. Like other prospectors, he must pay $250, or more than half an average person's annual income here, to the owner of the land for permission to pan just 10 square feet of riverbank.

After Dong Shi pays his stake's owner, his share of the diesel to run a generator and sluice pumps, school fees for his four kids and other mounting expenses, he has little left.

"We eat all that I earn," he said. "I have nothing left in my pocket. Tomorrow I go back to work on the river, just to have some more food."

It is grueling, risky work. To separate gold particles from the slurry, miners squeeze drops of mercury from strips of cloth soaked in quicksilver, exposing them and the river fish they eat to dangerous levels of the heavy metal, which can damage kidneys and the nervous system.

For all the prospectors' pain and risk, most pans come up bust. So they dig deeper, push the limits harder.

Desperate to hit pay dirt, dreaming of finding a rare nugget instead of just flecks, some villagers rig up hand pumps onshore to homemade breathing hoses, and wade to the middle of the river. They work up to three hours at a time underwater.

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