RANGOON — Crowds took to the streets of Burma’s second largest city on Tuesday to protest a government proposal to relocate the country’s principal jade and gems market.
Organizers of the demonstration estimated that tens of thousands of people gathered in downtown Mandalay to voice their opposition to the plan, which would move the marketplace from Maha Aungmyay Township to Amarapura, about 8 km (5 miles) south of the city center.
Than Win, chairman of a committee advocating for renovation over relocation, told The Irrawaddy that while he and his colleagues requested permission for 50,000 people to demonstrate, police allowed for 40,000. Mandalay police confirmed that they authorized a mass demonstration.
Mandalay Mayor Aung Maung tabled the proposal in the divisional parliament in early December, signaling that the plan may soon become a reality. 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 move said the current market is run down, crowded and unkempt, but traders countered that 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 have already requested three times by letter that the divisional government not move the marketplace, and we have also proposed that we upgrade the [existing] market with our money,” said Naing Lin Aung, also a member of the Committee to Deter Moving of the Gems Marketplace.
Kyaw Zaw Aung, the secretary of the committee, said that moving could be disastrous for small-scale local traders.
“The new market is very far from Mandalay, and the place is not safe for merchants as they would carry gems with them on their way. They could be mugged,” he said. “And again, smaller gems merchants will have to spend more for travel expenses.”
Locals said that though the proposal has not yet been approved, a new facility is already being built near Amapura’s Sim and Myinmu villages on a 6-acre plot of land. The main company involved in the project is Aye Aye Khaing Co. Ltd., a leading gem trading firm, according to committee members.
Traders said the current market houses more than 1,000 showrooms, where about 3,000 dealers make their living peddling 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.