“Until the World Shatters: Truth, Lies, and the Looting of Myanmar” by Daniel Combs

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Resource extraction has been integral to the economy of Myanmar’s borderlands for decades. One of the most valuable of these is jade, mined in northern Kachin state and then smuggled over the border into China. In Until the world shatters: truth lies and the looting of Myanmar, Daniel Combs depicts this extraction, the cost it imposes on civilians and the myriad of uneasy business relationships between parties nominally at war with each other.

The lives of two young men are used for this portrayal. Bun Htit, a Kachin volunteer for the Red Cross, is hoping to secure his family’s livelihood by breaking into the lucrative jade trade. With Bun Htit’s efforts to penetrate the secretive world of the jade trade, Combs explains how the myriad of dealers, agents and miners operate in an arena of corruption and secrecy. He explains how the the Kachin Independence Organization and Myanmar’s military, the Tatmadaw, who have been fighting a bloody on-off war with each other since 1962, facilitates this trade and how being rival armies is no barrier to a business relationship. Combs tells stories of local miners risking their lives to toil in the mines, hoping to find a piece of jade large enough to allow them to leave the mines behind. Kachin’s resource curse levies a terrible toll on Kachin civilians and Combs explains the role jade has in prolonging conflict.

Gems, minerals and opium have been fueling and funding conflict in Burma for decades and this reporting on the jade trade and the central role it plays in the development and politics of Kachin state is a highlight of the book. Combs also provides informative examples of how jade makes its way from the soil of Kachin State to jewelry stores around the world: how jade is bought and sold as rough stones by prospectors, sold to bigger mining companies and then smuggled over the border into China where the jade is worked and set into jewellery that regularly retails for tens of thousands of dollars. Combs gives voice to those directly involved, from local miners scraping for a living, all the way up the chain to the big brokers who make fortunes from the trade. In addition to a great detail on how this secretive trade actually works, Combs puts a human face to the trade, and the myriad of dangers those involved risk.

The second protagonist is Poe Wa, an aspiring journalist taking his first steps in the world of journalism after moving to Yangon from Mawlamyine. Poe Wa is the vehicle for a discussion of the media repression that was so prevalent under both the National League For Democracy government and previous military rule, and a vivid portrayal of the overall state of the media industry in Myanmar. Intertwined in this Combs details his own experiences reporting on Burma.

 

Until the World Shatters: Truth, Lies, and the Looting of Myanmar, Daniel Combs (Melville House, March 2021)
Until the World Shatters: Truth, Lies, and the Looting of Myanmar, Daniel Combs (Melville House, March 2021)

The chapters on Kachin State and Poe Wa are somewhat diluted by a lack of focus, as Combs detours onto other subjects. Chapters on interviews with punk rockers in Yangon, travels to local health clinics to cure his lethargy and insomnia with blood tonics and recollections of previous backpacking trips across the country distract from the important reportage from Kachin state. Even the powerful chapter detailing the Rohingya genocide, life in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh and a long, interesting interview with a monk feel out of place with the central aim of the book.

The analysis of resource theft in Myanmar’s borderlands would have been more complete had it included serious discussion of the drug trade, which operates on the same uneasy alliances between Tatmadaw, ethnic armed organizations and organized crime. While the Kachin jade trade is worth up to US$30 billion a year, Myanmar is the production hub of a regional drug trade in heroin and amphetamines worth more than twice that.

Since the book was written, the military seized power in a coup on 1 February; more than 1000 have since been killed by the junta. In Kachin state, an escalation of conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and the Tatmadaw has seen thousands of civilians injured and forced to flee their homes. While the situation on the ground may have changed, the dynamics have not, and Until the World Shatters provides an illuminating snapshot of life in Myanmar before the coup and of the uneasy alliances that the jade trade thrives on.


Maximillian Morch is a researcher and author, formerly based in Yangon and Kathmandu, focused on regional refugee and migratory issues.