Burmese amber has been mined in the Kachin State in northern Myanmar for nearly two millennia and an amber trade route was established between Burma and China as early as AD 100 (Poinar et al. 2006). The source of what was then called the “red amber from Yunnan” was unknown to the outside world until the 3rd Century. Amber trade between China and Myanmar has continued up to the present, except that in addition to jewelry and carvings, fossils have also become choice items for sale. After initial extractions of amber between 1947 and 1990, many amber mines in the Hukawng Valley were abandoned since jade and other industrial minerals (gold, platinum) were and still are more lucrative. But in 2010, when fossils became popular, amber mining in the Hukawng Valley intensified and Chinese dealers from Tengchong (Yunnan Province) started buying amber in the Myanmar city of Myitkyina and bringing it back to China (Fig. 1)(add Fig. 1 here)
Figure 1. Freehand map showing major features and cities included in this paper. Grey area indicates area of amber mining in the Hukawng Valley. Arrows show movement of amber from Noije Bum to Myitkyina in Myanmar and then to Tengchong in China.
In 1994, a ceasefire between the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and Myanmar government was put into effect to end the conflict between the two factions. In 2011, when the new president, Thein Sein, entered office, the 1994 ceasefire was broken. The present study researches the mining and sale of fossiliferous Burmese amber after 2011 to determine if the profits were or are being used by the Myanmar military to commit atrocities against minority groups or ethnic militia within the country, as implied in recent reports.
Recent articles in Science (Sokol 2019), New Scientist (Lawton 2019a, 2019b), New York Times (Joel 2020) and The Atlantic Daily (Gammon 2019) implicate that Burmese amber fossil sales are funding inhumane actions by the Myanmar military against minority groups within the country (while the country name was officially changed from Burma to Myanmar in 1989, it is customary to still refer to mining products as Burmese, e.g. Burmese amber, and to use Myanmar for political and official subjects, e.g. Myanmar government).
Based on these reports, some scientists have stated publicly that they will not purchase any more Burmese amber fossils and publishers have indicated that they will no longer accept papers on Burmese amber. Officials of the Society of Vertebrate Pathology issued a letter in which they requested “ a moratorium on publication for any fossil specimens purchased from sources in Myanmar after June 2017 when the Myanmar military began its campaign to seize control of the amber mining”. This request was sent to over 300 other journals that publish paleontological papers (Society of Vertebrate Paleontology 2020).
We have examined all available evidence, written and verbal, including correspondence with amber miners and traders in Myanmar and China, in order to corroborate or refute the implication that the Myanmar military is using funds from the sale of Burmese amber fossils to commit atrocities against minority groups within Myanmar.
In 2011, when the ceasefire between the Kachin Independent Army (KIA) and Myanmar government was broken, the production of amber was low and trade was conducted secretively. The financial dependency of the KIA on amber sales, coupled with the loss of profit in the Jade trade in 2014, resulted in the taxing of amber mined in Hukawng Valley at 30% by the KIA and dealers only paid a 10% tax in the Tanai trading area. Miners could undervalue the amber or just avoid taxes by not revealing amounts mined. This was the situation before the fighting started at the end of 2016 when amber mining in the Hukawng valley reached its peak, with an estimated 200,000 - 300,000 people digging, sorting and trading amber (Fig. 2)