TANAI, Kachin State—Wearing a torch around his head held in place with a rubber band and tightly holding a crowbar, Ah-Ser was covered in a cold sweat as he crept stealthily under the cover of night into his village, Nambru, which is famous for its abundant amber deposits, in Tanai Township of Kachin State.
“There are soldiers there. They sometimes search with dogs, and we have to hide,” he said.
Nambru was once a boomtown due to its premium amber deposits. These days, however, abandoned villages are covered in bushes with a few military outposts of the Tatmadaw standing near them.
Meanwhile, there is also a risk of landmines, as the area witnessed serious clashes between 2011 and early 2017.
Ah-Ser lived in Nambru Village till May 2017 and farmed for his living. Since then he has been living in a camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) opened by a Christian church in Tanai.
With limited employment opportunities in Tanai to support his family, all Ah-Ser can think to do is to go back to Nambru secretly to mine amber.
“We are in real hardship. If I had some money, I wouldn’t come here [Nambru Village]” he said.
Risk of arrest
IDPs like Ah-Ser risk arrest by the Tatmadaw to mine amber in the area. Sometimes, soldiers use sniffer dogs to search for and arrest illegal miners.
Risking arrest and landmines, Ah-Ser has come back to Nambru, a day and a night’s trek on foot through the forest from the camp where he is living.
There are around 5,000 civilians who have met the same fate as Ah-Ser and ended up at IDP camps. Most of them did farming for a living previously.
The area was largely peaceful despite the fact that Battalion 14 of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) was headquartered in the area. The KIA opened amber mines in 2011, drawing thousands of prospectors from across the country into the area. The area, however, remained stable.
After a dinosaur tail which is believed to be 99 million years old was found in a piece of amber discovered in Tanai, the Tatmadaw launched attacks on KIA troops in the area in June 2017 on the pretext of concerns for environmental conservation and the risks of losing state revenue.
The Tatmadaw dropped leaflets from airplanes, asking locals along with amber miners to leave the area. Locals from several villages with amber and gold mines had to flee their homes.
Following the clashes, the Tatmadaw has now taken control of the area.
Struggle to survive
Far from making plans for the return and resettlement of locals, authorities even barred opening camps for IDPs in Tanai, saying such camps mar the image of the town. As a result, displaced persons have to live in crowded churches.
After more than two years at the churches, displaced persons are enduring financial and material hardship.
The Metta Foundation, a humanitarian group providing assistance for IDPs, provides 20,000 kyats (US$13) per month to each displaced person in Tanai. The amount however is just 666 kyats per day, and it is simply not enough to survive.
Displaced persons have to find extra money for the schooling of their children, for health care costs in case they are sick, and for other household expenses.
The International Committee of the Red Cross provides 400,000 kyats for an IDP family wishing to run a small-scale business. But it is not easy for all the families to run small-scale businesses.
There are few job opportunities in Tanai, which is located by the Ledo Road built by American and British soldiers to link India and China during World War II.
Apart from working for Yuzana Co., which grows paddy and cassava on the Hukawng Plain near the town, the only other option is to mine amber or gold.
Some IDPs work as daily wage earners for Tanai residents who grow paddy. But they cannot employ all the IDPs, and jobless male IDPs are forced to illegally mine in the area guarded by Tatmadaw soldiers.
Ah-Ser goes to the amber mines with three or four male companions who are also displaced persons like him, desperate for money to support their families.
Amber miners run the risk of being shot by soldiers who are watching from outposts built on hills, and stepping on mines planted by both sides.
As they travel in a group with one following another through the forest at night by torchlight, their fate is closely tied to the one who walks in front.
They are prepared to accept their fate if the one going in front has the misfortune to step on a landmine.
If they find some landmines protruding from the earth due to rain, they mark the site with a wooden stick as a warning sign for other groups of amber miners.
They travel the whole night through the forest and arrive at the amber mine the next morning. Then they look for a place to sleep where soldiers cannot find them, and mine amber at night.
“It is safe only at night. We cook rice only at night. In the daytime, soldiers come and search with sniffer dogs. They sleep at night,” said displaced person Kiru.
“We don’t want to but we have to, because I have children to feed. The maximum amount we can earn per trip is just 50,000 kyats. Sometimes we have to flee and cannot bring anything,” he added.
But some are not as lucky as him. At least 30 amber miners, who were spotted by the military, were beaten and detained.
Due to the risks associated with amber mining, only a few displaced breadwinners who are desperate and prepared to face any risk go amber mining.
At the same time, some businessmen are still mining amber and making profits, according to locals who witnessed the activity.
Though it appears to people outside Tanai that the mines are closed, that is not the case, said local residents.
On the ground, the military has built outposts and blocked all the roads leading to the amber and gold mines.
But inside the mines, some businessmen who have bribed the military are still operating, locals said.
“All the local residents can see that amber businessmen who have ties to [the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military] go in and out of mines. Meanwhile, we locals can’t even go back to see their houses,” said Labau Chang Ying, member of a Tanai-based committee to assist IDPs.
Generators have to be used to operate machinery and give oxygen to mine workers who work underground. Locals have frequently seen oil tanker trucks heading in the direction of amber mines, said Labau Chang Ying, who used to live in Nambru village and was the chairman of the village Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC).
The allegations of military troops taking bribes from businesses in exchange for permission to conduct amber mining are rampant across Tanai.
“It is not that every person can enter [the mines]—only those who have ties to them. Again, Kachin and Rakhine [ethnic people] are not allowed to enter, but Lisu and Shan [ethnic people] can enter,” said Labau Chang Ying.
Amber trade thriving
Though the amber mines are closed, amber products mined from Tanai are still sold at amber markets in Tanai and Waingmaw townships.
There is more amber from Hkamti, which is inferior in quality than that found in Tanai, at amber markets. But there is still a constant supply of amber from Tanai.
Amber from Tanai is still sold in the market more than two years after the mines were closed, which is proof that there are still amber miners. And amber traders can still export premium amber from Tanai to China.
“Since the clashes, the amber supply from Tanai has declined significantly. Most of the amber from Khamti is not as old as that from Tanai. But it is not that the amber supply from Tanai has completely stopped. Miners still come and sell it to us. The only difference is that it is not as abundant as it was before,” said Myitkyina-based amber merchant Kaira.
The KIA alleges that the Tatmadaw has resumed mining in amber and gold mines seized from it, giving permission to Shanni and Lisu militia to operate in those mines.
Though the KIA had to relocate the headquarters of its Battalion 14 and its amber and gold mines were seized by the Tatmadaw after the clashes, the rebel group is still active in Tanai Township.
State to allow handpickers
On the other hand, the Kachin State government is planning to give official permission to handpickers to mine amber in the area covering 69,018.95 acres (27,930 hectares) in Nambru, Htang Para and Nwegi Bum villages in the area.
The government originally planned to demarcate plots for mining in the area, but it had to shelve its plan after it met criticism from local residents displaced by clashes, said Dashi La Seng, the Kachin State minister for natural resources and environmental conservation.
The state government hopes to resume its plan in December, said the minister. “Only by official design will we be able to get rid of illegal mining, and collect data regarding the impacts of mining on the environment,” the minister said.
Local residents displaced by clashes are concerned their lands will be incorporated into mining sites.
They hope to return to their homes as clashes ceased more than a year ago, and the KIA and Tatmadaw are preparing to sign a bilateral ceasefire agreement. They are worried that their inherited farms will be seized for amber mines before a bilateral ceasefire agreement is signed and they can return to their homes.
Dashi La Seng said their concerns are unnecessary because community elders as well as the Tanai Township administrator will be involved in the process. “They misunderstanding this somewhat,” he said.
Naw Tawng, a spokesperson for a Tanai-based committee to help IDPs, stressed that the government needs to protect the interests of local residents if it is to legalize amber mining in the area.
The government and Tatmadaw should undertake plans to allow displaced villagers to return home, and ensure they do not lose the farmland they inherited from their forebears, he said.
It is local residents who will have to suffer the environmental and social consequences of an influx of internal migrants one day when the natural resources are depleted.
“I want to see a law adopted regarding mining in the area. It is important that the law is systematically formulated and guarantees the interests of local ethnic people so that there will be more advantages than disadvantages,” Naw Tawng said.
Nevertheless, locals are struggling, and some are forced to risk their lives mining in prohibited areas to support their families.
While amber is a cash cow for businessmen and merchants, locals have to flee and have lost all of their belongings in armed clashes over amber.
They have lived on the land of gems for generations, but the natural resource has brought them more trouble than benefit. To them, amber has become a nightmare.