Dodging rumour and insurgency: the hunt for Burmese amber goes to the heart of Myanmar's turbulent north

Anyone with the guts to travel to Kachin State in Myanmar can score top quality amber peppered with trapped flora and fauna from a market estimated at $1 billion a year

Published in Financial Post on Jan 26, 2017

MYITKYINA, MYANMAR — The discovery of the world’s first preserved dinosaur tail embedded inside a chunk of amber made headlines in newspapers across the planet last month. Nicknamed Eva, this small piece of fossilized tree sap is fast becoming a scientific phenomenon due to the intact chemical structure of the organism inside.

The exceedingly rare and highly valuable Cretaceous-era tail ended up in the hands of a paleontologist named Lida Xing, whose group obtained the 99-million-year-old stone during a 2015 trip to Kachin State in Northern Myanmar, the origin of some of the world’s best amber inclusions, the flora and fauna found inside the gems.

A dinosaur tail blows every other inclusion out of the water and is a big deal for gem dealers around the world, some of whom can sell a single spider inclusion for US$1,000. Eva could easily fetch US$100,000.

Since Eva’s discovery, great tales of disguise and deception employed by Xing to visit insurgent-held regions of Kachin State have been reported. Through the use of fake identification and locally worn face paint, Xing is said to have entered insurgent-controlled mines to conduct research before eventually coming across the now-famous “dino-bird” tail.

The tales seem to indicate the whole act of obtaining amber from Northern Myanmar is a death-, disease- and arrest-defying stunt. It’s not quite that dire, since anyone with enough guts to travel to Kachin State can score a good deal on amber inclusions, but few foreigners are aware it’s even possible to trade in what might be a $1-billion industry, let alone advisable given the country’s turbulent past.

Myanmar is emerging from the shadows of a former dictatorship as a newly minted democracy. The country’s annual eight-per-cent GDP growth makes it the world’s fastest-growing economy, but many old misconceptions of the past remain embedded in the psyche of locals and foreigners alike.

Stories of ongoing conflict between the Buddhist-majority national military, known as the Tatmadaw, and the Christian-led Kachin Independence Army keep many people, even intrepid sightseers, from travelling to Northern Myanmar.

But visiting remote Kachin State to get close to gem markets is very cheap and relatively safe for a foreigner, despite conflicting information that continues to circulate on the Internet and in newspapers, Burmese hotel lobbies and even embassies.

(Author photographed at Kachin national monument, Manau Park, Myitkyina, 2016)

Chances are, the news of Xing’s discovery will fuel interest in making the trip, especially anyone whose income relies even partially on millennia-old sticky tree resin — including gem dealers, miners, amber hunters and jewellers.

Many people with knowledge about Burmese amber — or burmite — are aware of the possibility of more dinosaur specimens emerging from the shadowy and often misunderstood hills of Kachin State in the not-so-distant future. Even Xing was recently quoted as saying it’s possible a full dinosaur will be found soon.

(An unstudied Cretaceous Tetrapod in Author's collection)

In late December, a Bangkok-based amber hunter returned from Kachin State clutching a curious amber inclusion. The owner, who asked to remain anonymous, recently agreed to a private showing to display his piece, which is still undergoing testing. The authenticity of this unnamed specimen has shocked at least one licensed gemologist who has seen the stone up close.

“This looks like a bird, a bird from a dinosaur era. I haven’t scoped it, but with the lens I could see fat, I could see blood, I could see hair. It’s exciting,” said Yedunath Ramakrishnan, a fellow of the Gemological Association (FGA).

Ramakrishnan, who has been in the gem business as a licensed professional for 18 years, said though he is not yet certain, his assumption is the piece contains the intact skull of a dinosaur bird.

“I think it’s extremely rare. That’s why I came rushing today after work to see this beauty,” he said.

It isn’t just dinosaurs being hauled out of burmite mines in Kachin State. Rare, valuable and possibly extinct insects such as spiders, flies and other 100-million year-old flora and fauna are discovered daily and sold in open air markets throughout the area, such as in Myitkyina, Kachin State’s northernmost capital city. Indeed, it was the very same Myitkyina Gem and Jewelry Trade Center where Xing bought the dino-bird tail in 2015

(an unstudied Cretaceous cricket in Author's collection)

Until recently, knowledge of untouched Kachin State amber wasn’t well known to the general public and, in many ways, it still isn’t.

At least one prominent (albeit controversial) Canadian geologist, James Davis, was hard on the trail of Burmese amber in the 1990s when he managed to secure more than 500 kilograms of burmite.

Davis eventually brought it back to North America, where it was sold to wealthy buyers, such as American collectors. He made a killing at a time when Myanmar was run by an authoritarian regime tied to a mountain of universally decried human rights violations.

Challenged by humanitarians angry with him for cooperating implicitly with Myanmar’s former dictatorship, Davis recently repeated a phrase he’s been saying for years.

“A country can only change democratically in two ways: by evolution, or by revolution,” he said in a telephone interview.

Evolution, Davis contends, is far better for Myanmar because fewer people are killed and maimed during the course of society’s advancement through international trade. It’s an imperfect sentiment, but one that appears to be statistically accurate given the country’s recent history — at least in some industries.

For instance, ownership of mobile phones has skyrocketed since the market opened up to foreign competition three years ago. According to Mizzima News, 50 per cent of the population now has a mobile phone. Even toothless villagers in towns 100 kilometres from Myanmar’s pothole-laced cross-country highways can be seen browsing Facebook during break-time.

Estimates of Myanmar’s amber trade are statistically far more ambiguous because of the country’s highly unregulated borders and the prevalence of black-market smuggling, in which large quantities of various substances — some legal, others not — are traded in markets not measurable by federal tax agencies.

However, it’s safe to say at least $1 billion of legitimate amber trading takes place in the country in any given year.

Despite insurgencies in the borderlands, Myitkyina is a relatively quiet city that’s cleaner, cooler, less humid and less populated than better-known cities such as Mandalay or Yangon.

It’s possible for a budget gem hunter to embark on nearly 40 hours of antiquated train travel to reach Myitkyina for less than $30, which includes two nights in a sleeper cart with a bed and a window.

It’s a bouncy, sweaty and noisy ride. Women and children peddling watermelons and $2 bottles of whiskey wander through the aisles of the train, day and night, hollering prices and inventories.

High-class travellers can opt for a flight from Yangon to Myitkyina to avoid the trains and buses, and the accompanying paranoia that occurs among westerners as a result of possibly being exposed to rare infectious diseases carried by insects and humans also riding the train.

Canadian travel safety web pages list Myanmar as a high-risk zone for a large list of maladies including dengue fever, elephantiasis and the Zika virus.

Like many parts of Myanmar, the population of Myitkyina is highly diverse, with recent census data indicating a slight majority of ethnic Burman Buddhists living among large numbers of Kachin tribal peoples, most of whom share Christianity as their religion and speak their own language, called Jingpo.

Also living in Myitkyina are sizable minority populations of ethnic Indian descent: Sikhs, Muslims and Nepalis, too.

Amber is sold early in the morning in the city’s main market, which is a fair distance from the rail station. Dozens of sellers, mostly women, sit in front of mounds of raw burmite in open-air outbuildings.

Burmese amber hunters squat down and rummage through the rocks, looking for quality pieces. As a buyer walks by, water is poured over the top to make the pile look more bedazzling.

Shelves full of polished bangles and bracelets are also on display, and miners carrying rocks meet with buyers willing to gamble on what’s inside.

Patience to bargain in good faith is required to get a good deal. Prices are usually sky high whenever a foreigner asks the cost of a particular pile.

“The Burmese love to haggle, it’s all part of the deal,” said Davis, recalling his days spent in Southeast Asian marketplaces.

When a buyer offers a price, it can be retracted almost immediately if the seller doesn’t respond. Prices never stay the same, and a great deal of human intelligence is utilized in deal making.

Rarely are scales involved in trades with bulk stones. Everything is mostly eyeballed, aided only by magnification devices called hand loupes and flashlights.

The amber markets close early, sometimes even before noon, which is pretty normal in conservative and quiet Myanmar. In contrast, the population in neighbouring Thailand never seems to sleep.

The only businesses in Myitkyina generally still open at night are bare-fluorescent sidewalk teashops where dealers of gemstones and other substances gather sometimes to sell while sitting on cheap plastic chairs.

Men sit together, chatting and smoking cigarettes or Burmese cheroots. It isn’t uncommon to see a young boy waiting on the tables, serving tea while business is being done.

Whether it’s heroin (known locally as No. 4), amphetamines or more scrupulous commodities, such as burmite and other gemstones, Myitkyina has what a buyer is looking for.

The city is usually quiet, with only the sounds of stray dogs fighting or the ring of the night watchman’s gong at 10 p.m.

In true dealer fashion, an “amber virgin” is offered his first stone for free as a gift. The present is from an enterprising and generous young wholesale Burmese amber dealer who is at times exploited by cartels of rich locals who attempt to restrict and control the supply of quality amber sold in the city and elsewhere throughout the country.

The gift is a clear yellow transparent cylinder of amber devoid of any insect inclusions. Within minutes, the buyer, a lanky foreigner, is shaking hands to seal a deal for a 30-piece bag of various amber insect and plant inclusions originally mined from an area called Tanai.

He’s baffled, amazed and astounded how much cheaper it is to conduct business in the teashops as opposed to the markets. But he doesn’t know the true value of what he’s just bought. And in that moment, he’s hardly thinking of the moral or ethical implications of the business he just conducted.

And just like that, another day passes in the dusty teashops of Myitkyina.

Financial Post

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