Gem Traders in Mandalay Oppose Moving Marketplace

By Zarni Mann 15 December 2014

MANDALAY — Gem traders in Mandalay are gearing up in opposition to a government plan to relocate Burma’s biggest jade and gem market.

Local traders, who have long opposed a relocation plan that would move them from downtown Mandalay to Amarapura, in the outskirts of the city, said they would submit a formal complaint to the divisional parliament while the issue is under debate by lawmakers.

“We will submit a complaint to the divisional parliament and request that the market be upgraded instead of moved, as we all wish,” said Than Win, a trader and chairman of a community committee advocating for renovation.

Mandalay Mayor Aung Maung reportedly tabled the proposal in the divisional parliament on Friday, signaling that the plan may soon become a reality. Local traders have opposed the move since it was first proposed in 2012, claiming that it disenfranchised small-scale merchants and left their merchandise vulnerable to theft.

Proponents of the plan said the current market, which is the main hub for Burma’s lucrative stones, is run down, crowded and unkempt. Traders said they had twice proposed renovating the market instead of relocating it, a proposal that they claimed had been not yet been addressed by lawmakers.

“We requested that the authorities upgrade the market instead of moving us so far away from the town, but they ignored us and kept trying to move us out. If they keep doing this, we will have to confront them as we have no other choice,” said Than Win.

Mandalay’s gem and jade market is currently located in downtown’s Maha Aungmyay Township, where it was installed by the Mandalay City Development Committee in 1997. Plans to once again relocate the market surfaced around 2008 with an initial proposal to move operations to the commercial capital, Rangoon, in order to facilitate legal export through seaports and minimize illicit cross-border trade.

Around late 2012, however, officials suggested instead moving the market to Amarapura, about 8 km (5 miles) from downtown Mandalay and near the highway connecting the city to Rangoon. The local gem traders’ committee said that a new pagoda adorned with precious stones is already being built at the new site, which will be christened “Jade Garden.”

While the mayor reportedly told local press that the new site would include housing and some social service facilities, many don’t want to move. Those vendors who wish to remain I their current residences face long transit times and apprehension about leaving their wares in the shop overnight.

“The new marketplace is so far away that we need to worry about security,” said gems dealer Thet May. “Who will take responsibility if we are robbed and our gems are stolen?”

While some vendors said they were assured transportation, they remained skeptical of the government’s ability to provide safe and adequate transit and security. “We won’t move even an inch from this place,” said Thet May, referring to the current marketplace.

Traders said the current market houses more than 1,000 showrooms, where about 3,000 dealers make their living peddling the rare stones. The market supports the livelihoods of countless others who work as porters, cutters and polishers. Some traders estimated that as many as 8,000 people would be directly affected by the move.

“The most suitable place for this market is downtown,” said jade-seller Kyaw Zaw Aung. “Every buyer and seller can have access there. If the current market isn’t graceful enough, why not upgrade it? [The government] is wasting money building a new market.”

Burma is rich in precious stones including jade, rubies and sapphires. A report by the Harvard Ash Center, published in mid-2013, estimated that the jade trade alone was worth about US$8 billion in 2011. While government figures accounted for a much smaller amount, much of the revenue is believed to come from illegal trade with China.

Total official sales surpassed $3 billion, however, at a jade emporium held in the capital Naypyidaw in July, according to the Ministry of Mines.

Most of the stones come from mineral deposits found in volatile ethnic states, like Kachin in the country’s north, where the government is still at war with armed groups fighting for greater autonomy.