'Until The World Shatters' Explores Jade's Role In Myanmar's Struggles
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Myanmar has been in the news after the military took control of the government in a coup last month, but the Southeast Asian country has had other violent chapters. For decades, the military has fought with various ethnic groups that want more autonomy, including the Kachin, a mostly Christian group that lives in the north on the border with China. In his new book, "Until The World Shatters: Truth, Lies, And The Looting Of Myanmar," author Daniel Combs details the Kachin struggle, which is linked to a precious gem. Combs spoke with our co-host Steve Inskeep.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Let's just start by literally putting it on a map. I'm looking at the front of your book here at this map of Myanmar. And I have a colleague who says Myanmar is kind of shaped like a kite. You know, it's sort of a diamond with a little tail. And Kachin is at the top of the diamond. What kind of a place is it?
DANIEL COMBS: So Kachin state is is a mountainous, rugged region filled with jungles and rivers. And it's sometimes considered some of the most inhospitable space in the world. But it's also very, very beautiful. And the people that live there, the Kachin people, are one of the many, many ethnic minority groups in the country.
INSKEEP: What drew you to such a place?
COMBS: So I was fascinated by the conflict in Kachin state. And I didn't realize - and I think a lot of people don't realize - that Myanmar is home to the longest-running war on the planet. The country has been in a state of armed conflict since independence, basically, in 1948. And right now, the place where the fighting was fiercest was in Kachin state. So I really wanted to understand some of the drivers of that conflict.
INSKEEP: Were there battle lines to cross?
COMBS: Yes. I never felt like I was physically in danger, but there were definitely times when I was reporting when you could hear artillery shells in the distance or when people I was with were nonchalant when they explained to me that, yes, that is machine gun fire you're listening to. But one of the things that really struck me, Steve, when I was there was that the civil war is a part of their day-to-day life, but it's also a part of their business. Sometimes, for example, I would go on the golf course to meet with some of these high-ranking officials. And one of the most bizarre things was I would be golfing in a group that would have a representative from the Myanmar military, and then there would be a representative from the armed organization fighting the military. And these two guys who were supposed to be on opposite sides of the civil war - they were there together, drinking beers and talking business. And I found that very, very strange. And it took me a long time to figure out, you know, why that was happening.
INSKEEP: Why was that happening?
COMBS: So Kachin state is home to some of the most valuable real estate on the planet. There is gold, rubber, timber, amber mines. But by far the most valuable resource in recent years is jade. The jade industry is incredibly lucrative but also incredibly corrupt. And so I tried to learn how the Myanmar military and the armed groups that they were purportedly fighting against were, in fact, colluding to continue this conflict in order to keep governance levels low and continue this profiting from the war.
INSKEEP: What is the jade used for, and where does it go?
COMBS: So Kachin state is the only place in the world where there's significant deposits of jadeite, which is a specific type of jade that is very, very culturally significant in China, where it is highly, highly valued and is used as jewelry or in little carvings. And it's really hard to estimate the value of the jade industry because it's almost entirely underground, but it's been valued anywhere between 8 and $40 billion per year. A conservative estimate would say that 90% of that never goes anywhere near state coffers. And so this is money that could go to reforming the health care system or the education system in Myanmar. But instead, it mostly goes to fund this war effort. And while there are aspects of the civil war that have nothing to do with the jade industry, I don't think you can talk about the war and not have a conversation about the gemstone industry and the suffering that it's caused people.
INSKEEP: You were there in recent years, during this period of several years where there was a democratic opening in Myanmar. Aung San Suu Kyi became the leader of the country, and the military took a half step back from some of its power. Did that change circumstances in Kachin at all, in any way whatsoever?
COMBS: Actually, in a kind of perverse and ironic way, it made things a little bit worse. The civilian government under Aung San Suu Kyi tried to engage in reform, in, like, a process of reforming the rules around the jade and larger gemstone industries. The companies doing business up there, kind of saw the ticking clock. And they thought that there was going to be, you know, basically a moratorium on jade mining after a certain amount of time. And so operations really, really sped up. That meant that there was a lot more jade coming out. It meant that there was a lot more people going to the mines. It meant that there was a lot more conflict about how that jade was being used and who was missing out.
INSKEEP: Now in recent weeks, of course, there's been a coup and a step back from what little democracy there was. Is that affecting Kachin in any way, so far as you know?
COMBS: The vast majority of people in Kachin state are very, very opposed to the military's grabbing power, this coup. There are also some who haven't necessarily welcomed the military's takeover but certainly haven't vocally opposed it due to this idea it's only the military who can really decide whether or not the civil war will continue. And so they see the military as a better negotiating partner. And, of course, my analysis would be that they also see the military as a business partner.
INSKEEP: You know, when we think about the military in Myanmar, how even when they turned over some power to a civilian government stayed in the legislature, stayed close to power and how they've now seized full power once again, is part of the reason for their insistence on staying in power that they're making so much money with jade?
COMBS: So I think that it is very, very important to address this issue of the military's refusal to leave power and the amount of money they're making not just in the jade industry but in a whole host of the country's economy. Jade is not the only underground, unregulated economy that the military and other elites profit from. You know, other journalists have done extensive reporting on the connection between the narcotics industry and the military, as well. And so there's a whole business empire that is at risk of crumbling if real governance reforms, real democracy ever takes root.
INSKEEP: Daniel Combs is the author of the new book "Until The World Shatters: Truth, Lies, And The Looting Of Myanmar." Thanks so much.
COMBS: Thank you.
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MARTIN: Since writing this book, Daniel Combs has taken a job as a foreign service officer for the State Department. He spoke to us in a personal capacity. The book is out tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.