Mining is one of Burma’s major industries, and the country has vast reserves of gold, tungsten, copper, nickel, tin, lithium, rubies and jade. Gold production in 2013 is expected at 500 kilograms, which is twice the amount produced in 2012. An $800 million nickel mining project north of Mandalay is also set to open, which will produce an expected 85,000 tons of ferro-nickel a year. Apart from metals, Burmese gems are highly coveted, and the Burmese ruby, also referred to as pigeon’s blood ruby, is the most expensive gem per carat in the world. In addition, Burma is the world’s primary source of top-grade jade. In Yangon, tourists visit jewelry stores hoping for a good deal, while some simply want a glimpse of some of the world’s most beautiful gems.
Mining is a key to Burma’s economic rise; but it is propped up by slave labour, drugs, and inhumane working conditions. A recent article brings to light the plight of gold miners, dying from lung disease due to the absence of masks and safety gear. Previously owned by the government, many of Burma’s gold mines are now owned privately, and easing international sanctions has allowed production to increase. Mining also poses a serious threat to the country’s biodiversity, and the nickel mine will damage rainforests and severely impact nearby villages. Apart from environmental concerns, copper mining in Letpadaung has damaged a historic Buddhist pagoda, and police open-fired into protesters – injuring seven poeple.
Burma’s ruby mines have often been called out by human rights groups for its routine violations. Children as young as four work in the Mogok region, extracting the precious stones. The town of Mogok, dubbed as ‘valley of the rubies’, is closed off to tourists. Meanwhile, heroin addiction is rampant in the jade mines, and needle-sharing and unprotected sex with prostitutes has give rise to the largest HIV-infected community in the world. For this reason, although most American trade sanctions against Burma have been lifted, President Obama maintained the ban on Burmese jade and ruby.
The 1994 Mining Law and the Gemstone Law will be reformed, but delays mean that it may not come into effect until March 2014 or later.
For decades, Burma’s airports have suffered from poor management and maintenance. They are “small, unsafe, and technologically stunted“. In addition, the three main international airports have been identified as major hubs for smuggling illegal drugs.
To meet the demands of an expected 4.2 million passengers in 2013, the Department of Civil Aviation will be entering public-private partnerships with investors to upgrade 30 of its 69 airports. Hopefully, the upgrades will improve Burma’s poor aviation safety record. Currently, the aviation sector’s accident rate is nine times as high as the global average.
U Bein Bridge
Located in Taung Thaman Lake near Mandalay, U Bein Bridge is known as the longest teak bridge in the world. Over 160 years old, it is a popular site for foreign and local tourists.
Due to the weather, daily traffic on the bridge, and its age, there are fears that the bridge might collapse. To prevent further damage, riding motorbikes and bicycles has been banned, although the rule is not always followed or enforced. There are plans to preserve the bridge, as well as develop the surrounding area to make it more scenic.
Currently, the lake and surrounding areas are polluted. Despite local efforts to clean up the area, local services such as garbage collection (once a month) are inadequate to keep up with the waste generated on a daily basis.
The Forgotten Princess
Burma’s royal family was dethroned in 1885 by the British colonial regime. King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat, the last ruling royals, lived in exile in the Indian town of Ratnagiri. The rest of the family were scattered, living as ordinary citizens in India and in Burma. Although majority of the Burmese population has forgotten about the last king, a recent visit by President U Thein Sein to the king’s tomb has led to renewed interest in Burma’s royal family.
Daw Hteik Su Phaya Gyi is one of two surviving grandchildren of King Thibaw. She currently lives in a small apartment in anonimity, a stark contrast to the gilded lives of her ancestors. She works as a teacher and lives with her daughter who works at a burial association. No one in her immediate family is interested in reviving the royal line.
Travelers and royal watchers wanting to know more about Burma’s royal past can read The King in Exile: The Fall of The Royal Family of Burma by Sudha Shah.