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Jade slump highlights Myanmar's reliance on China

YANGON -- Falling sales of jade in Myanmar underscore the country's vulnerability to economic conditions in China.

Raw jade is displayed for sale at the Myanmar Gems Emporium, which was held in Naypyitaw's Maniradana Jade Hall from June 24 to July 6.

     The Myanmar Gems Emporium, the country's biggest gem exhibition and sale, was held in Naypyitaw's Maniradana Jade Hall from June 24 to July 6. The annual event, which has been held since 1964, brings together gem miners and wholesalers and features the most precious stones from around the country.

     As Myanmar is the world's largest producer of jade, the gemstone is the main item up for auction.

     However, sales of the precious stone at the prestigious event -- considered an indicator of economic conditions in the country -- plummeted 60% from a year earlier to roughly 940 million euros ($1.02 billion).

     A 34-year-old jeweler said if sales remain slow, the effect on the jade industry would be disastrous. "Even at a major event like the Myanmar Gems Emporium, jade buyers from China have declined more than expected."

     The Yangon-based jeweler participated in the event for the first time this year with the aim of finding new customers, as jade business with Chinese customers has been flagging.

     Jade is a major industry in Myanmar. It makes up 10% of the nation's total exports, and 90% of it goes to China.

     Purchases by Chinese brokers have been declining since 2014, even in Mandalay, the country's largest jade market. A local dealer said the unit price has decreased by nearly 30%.

Two factors     

Falling sales are mainly attributable to two factors. One is declining demand from China, where a harsh austerity order issued by President Xi Jinping's government has stifled purchases of luxury goods. The other is repeated clashes between the country's troops and ethnic minorities in Kachin State, the largest producer of jade in the country.

     Also, reports of alleged forced labor involving those ethnic minorities in Kachin's jade industry have put international human rights groups on alert.

     The Southeast Asian nation is striving to reduce its dependence on China, which has wielded strong influence over Myanmar, especially while the latter was ruled by a military junta. In 2012, for example, Myanmar froze a dam project being developed by Chinese-owned businesses.

      However, decreasing its reliance on its massive neighbor has not been easy because China is one of the biggest buyers of Myanmar's main commodities, which also include rice and natural gas. The country's economy would likely collapse without China.

     When pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi visited China for the first time in June, the trip was partly intended to mend a somewhat-strained relationship between Beijing and Naypyitaw. Suu Kyi's opposition National League for Democracy party is expected to make big gains in parliamentary elections this fall.

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