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Screening of film on jade trade’s ills blocked in Rangoon

A banner announces the screening, which did not ultimately take place, of "Jade and the Generals" at Parkroyal hotel in Rangoon on 17 May 2017. (Image: DVB)

An international corruption watchdog was barred Wednesday from officially launching a short film that asserts both the military and armed ethnic militias remain complicit in perpetuating abuses and misgovernance in Burma’s murky jade industry, only one week before the second iteration of the 21st Century Panglong Conference convenes.

Global Witness had timed the release of the film “Jade and the Generals,” which is available online, ahead of the National League for Democracy government-led peace summit in an effort to raise the profile of important — and fraught — issues such as resource-sharing, which it says must be a part of the conversation next week.

Paul Donowitz, the Global Witness campaign leader, instead read a statement issued by Parkroyal hotel in Rangoon, where the event was held, which explained that the screening had been cancelled due to lack of permission from Rangoon regional authorities.

Global Witness was informed late Tuesday night that there would be “a problem screening the film,” according to Donowitz. After a several-hour-long meeting between hotel management and Global Witness, Parkroyal staff decided the event would be allowed to proceed without screening the film and an accompanying photo essay. The move to block the screening came as a surprise to Global Witness, which had met with Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation representatives in Naypyidaw earlier in the week for an advance showing, a meeting that they characterised as “very positive.”

Donowitz added that Global Witness has “no specific information indicating that the military or government authorities ordered or pressured the hotel to cancel the film screening.”

DVB sought further explanation from hotel management, but staff were unable to elaborate.

The UK-based organisation’s film details its investigation into the multi-billion-dollar jade trade, the hub of which is nestled in the conflict-stricken mines of Kachin State’s Hpakant Township. The watchdog says it is no coincidence that fighting between the Burma Army and ethnic armed groups — particularly the Kachin Independence Army — tends to flare when the authority of the former is threatened.

Global Witness estimates that the jade trade was worth a whopping $31 billion in 2014 alone. To put that figure into perspective, in the 2014-15 fiscal year a mere 652 billion kyats (about $680 million at the time) was allocated to fund healthcare nationwide.

Burma’s rich reserves of natural resources were largely monopolised by the military in the 1990s. Since that time, a shadowy permit system has largely obscured the identities of those at the top tiers of the gems industry.

Global Witness revealed in a 2015 report that the families of former military dictator Than Shwe, and Ohn Myint, a former major-general under the junta, have been taking a substantial slice of the proceeds — raking in $220 million through multiple concessions at official national gems emporiums in 2014.

Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD government prioritised peacemaking throughout the 2015 election campaign, and convened a follow-up to her father’s 1947 Panglong Conference to broker peace between the Tatmadaw and the country’s many ethnic armed groups in August of last year.

But Kachin groups and international observers have criticised the initiative for thus far ignoring the havoc wreaked by the ongoing tussle for jade profits. Peace in northern Burma will be impossible if the industry is not overhauled to divert profits toward the Kachin population, says Kachin Development Networking Group General Secretary Tsa Ji.

“This is a natural resources issue, there needs to be power-sharing between the [Kachin] State and central governments. Ownership, control management, taxation and benefit-sharing is very important to think about at Panglong negotiations,” Tsa Ji said.

Civil society groups have already begun criticising the second round of Panglong talks, scheduled to begin on 24 May in Naypyidaw. The military, government, ethnic armed groups and a handful of other stakeholder groups are afforded seats at the negotiating table, but civil society groups are not. Asked if the absence of local stakeholders will be detrimental to progress toward peace, Tsa Ji said the arrangement remained controversial.

“We have no chance to attend … it’s just the military and armed groups. But we should [still] try to advocate, but we don’t know how many effective actions there will be at the Panglong. … It is very complicated and controversial,” he added.