Why is there rampant heroin addiction among Myanmar’s jade miners?

In northern Myanmar, there's an epidemic of heroin addiction and HIV infection among workers who mine for jade. Some believe the government is encouraging the use of drugs as a weapon against their people. Hari Sreenivasan talks to Dan Levin of The New York Times about China’s role in the industry and how the epidemic spread.

Read the Full Transcript


    The precious stone jade has long been seen in China as a sign of luck and prestige. But the most coveted type of jade comes from Myanmar, also known as Burma, where it is often pulled from the ground by heroin-addicted miners surviving in desperate conditions.

    Hari Sreenivasan has this report produced in partnership with The New York Times.


    Jade lies close to the surface and the rolling hills in northern Myanmar near the Chinese border.

    Foreigners aren't permitted anywhere near this area. Raw, it looks like many other stones, but cut and polished, its trademark green hue shines bright. Large-scale mining concessions are licenses to companies with ties to the Burmese government. Smaller-scale operations like this are mined with hand tools by Kachin workers.

    However, dozens of miners interviewed by The New York Times said the operations they worked were for illegally funded by Chinese businessmen.

  • HIKUM MAI, Former Jade Miner (through interpreter):

    I began using drugs because of pressure from my friends. My friends said drugs were good to relieve the pain of the hard work, and the job I did was very hard.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    Workers queued up to buy drugs at the mines. At first, I smoked heroin when I was tired of the demanding work. Later, I started injecting it.


    Miners here believe the drugs let them work longer without stopping. Before he got HIV, Naring would work around the clock, working for days without sleep.

    He was paid $1 an hour. Dealers set up shops next to or on mining sites like this, where users are free to sell, buy, and use heroin. Kachin miners claim the police and military routinely take bribes and allow the market to run without interference of the law. What looks like piles of trash are in fact piles of needles.

  • MARIP MUNG RA AWNG, Jade Miner (through interpreter):

    It's even easier to buy drugs than buying cigarettes in a shop. It's like a store selling noodles or bread.


    Heroin is illegal in Myanmar, but its rampant use in Kachin State and lack of drug enforcement in the mines has led many Kachin believe that the central government is encouraging the scourge as a weapon against their people.

  • NDING LA JA, Anti-Drug Activist (through interpreter):

    The number of drug users has significantly increased because the Kachin people are the targeted victims of drugs.


    La Ja, a former addict, runs rehab clinics in Myitkyina, Kachin State's capital. He tries to help miners hooked on heroin. Sadly, he believes his success rate is lower than 5 percent.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    You can say it's an opium war, as they are using heroin as a tool for ethnic cleansing.

  • MAN (through interpreter):

    You can see that there are many Kachin youth in prison. Some of are in prison, and some are dead. And the living ones are going to die through addiction.


    Joining me is Dan Levin, who wrote the text article for The New York Times.

    So, how long has this problem been going on and what made it so bad?

  • DAN LEVIN, The New York Times:

    Heroin addiction in Myanmar certainly goes back at least two decades, when the jade trade really picked up as a result of an increase in demand from China's growing middle class.

    And while opium has been a serious issue in Myanmar, it was only about 20 years ago that you really started to see heroin flow into northern Myanmar, and into the arms of a lot of these miners.


    You know, as we saw one of the social workers in the piece said that this is a tool that can destroy an entire population, more powerful than, say, bullets that might kill a single individual. How rampant is the problem in this young population of miners?


    It's a very serious and a widespread problem.

    If you talk to health professionals and international rights groups that have done a lot of work there this region, they really describe it as a humanitarian crisis. When you talk to miners, they say that pretty much four out of five, basically everybody that they know in the mines is using heroin and sharing needles often.


    It was jarring to see those mountain of needles that heroin addicts have been using. Is there an idea of where the drugs are coming from to get into the country?


    Among locals and international organizations that are studying this problem, there is a sense that these drugs are actually being made elsewhere in Myanmar.

    The theory is that these are local militias who are seen to be protected by powers that be and are bringing these drugs into the mines, where there is a ready and willing addicted population who can pay for the drugs.

    What's clear is that there are checkpoints around the mines. So, in order to get in, someone has to be looking the other way, because you have jade flowing out and drugs flowing in.


    Besides the demand that the Chinese middle class or let's say just the population all over the globe are creating, there are a couple of point in your story where you say that perhaps the Chinese have deeper involvement, that they're actually part of the infrastructure and own some of these mining camps. What sort of evidence supports that?


    We have spoken to several people who are in the mining industry in Myanmar, as well as miners and Chinese businesspeople who talk about how Chinese business interests are deeply involved both in buying the gems at the mines, as well as providing financing.

    No one really knows who is involved in the mines, who is operating the mines. And this is an issue that has been brought to the Myanmar government, asking for more transparency of just exactly what's happening there. And so far, they really have not been that forthcoming. And this is an issue because, as Myanmar looks ahead and tries to rebrand itself as a democratic, more open country, jade is a very lucrative industry that is known to be very corrupt.

    And in order to really know who's at play here, the government really has to open up the mines and the records of who is operating them.


    All right, Dan Levin of The New York Times, thanks so much.


    Thank you.