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In two short years, a reform movement led by ex-generals has transformed a junta-run backwater into Asia’s new investment attraction. But there's a catch. Yangon is no ready-made Shanghai. Long neglected, the country's infrastructure leaves much to be desired. And many of the resources that make Myanmar so compelling in the first place lie in the jungle under the careful watch of guerrilla fighters. Still, the companies have come, and the money is flowing. Cue the gold rush. GlobalPost's Patrick Winn investigates.
As sanctions subside, a broken nation revels in the limelight and seeks foreign businesses to help it cash in.
is among the Yangon go-getters exhilarated by his country’s potential. Three years ago, the 64-year-old geology professor left his local university for a flashier pursuit: digging up minerals from Myanmar’s unruly hinterlands.
Soe Thein now runs an upstart business, Adventure Metal International Mining, from his home office in a shabby cement apartment block. “The Burmese kings and the British did much digging for gold,” Soe Thein said. “But they didn’t find everything.”
Clad in a beige sarong, Soe Thein knelt on a floor mat, unfurled a map and traced a finger over his most magnificent discovery. He claims to have identified Southeast Asia’s largest vein of gold. Purportedly 100 miles long and 50 miles wide, it begins in Myanmar’s war-torn Karen State, arcs towards the sea and plunges underwater.
By one mining official’s own admission, the professor may be on to something. “Is it true? Maybe,” said Kyaw Htet, director of Myanmar’s Ministry of Mines. “We really don’t know yet.”
Educated at Australia’s University of South Wales in the 1980s, Soe Thein said he pinpointed his find using complex satellite maps mail-ordered from Landstar Digital Technology, a Beijing mapping firm. One Landstar map depicting a single square kilometer costs $10 to $20, he said.
The entrepreneur laments that he cannot afford more American “Hyperspectral Imaging” maps that more precisely identify mineral deposits from space. Those go for roughly $1,000 per square kilometer, he said.
Soe Thein is seeking a partner, preferably Western, who can join his search for gold and gems. Until recently, Western sanctions limited the explorer to the company of less desirable collaborators. “A Russian once contacted me. He was looking for uranium,” Soe Thein said. “I put a stop to it.”
If Soe Thein hits the jackpot, so will Myanmar’s government. The state demands a 20 percent cut of all ruby, jade and diamond sales. Mining projects now account for $2.3 billion in capital and more than 7 percent of Myanmar’s approved foreign investments.
Mining is an easy earner for the government. State policy now dictates that the government shall “not make investment on its own” in mining but instead “encourages foreign and local investors to invest with advanced technologies.”
But the official sales pitch often glosses over an inconvenient fact: most of Myanmar’s precious minerals are located in terrain still claimed by indigenous guerrilla armies.
“Yes, most mining areas are insurgent areas,” Kyaw Htet told foreign investors at a recent conference. “You should request from local authorities for secure conditions. We will assist your request. But the department is not responsible for these matters.”
Soe Thein has his own means of appeasing armed factions that roam mountains rich in gold. “Just pay them. They need money,” he said. “You give them enough and, trust me, they’re satisfied.”
Late in life, Soe Thein has become a gadget freak emboldened by Myanmar’s market reforms. Until recently, officials priced cell phone registration chips at more than $1,500 to keep them beyond the reach of most citizens and allegedly to prevent a communication network too massive to spy on. Today, street kiosks rent insertable chips for less than $50.
“This would have cost me $3,000 a few years ago!” said Soe Thein, gleefully brandishing his Samsung smartphone. He is enamored with its GPS feature, a valuable tool when navigating the countryside. “Within two meters, it tells me where I am.”
There is only one region in Myanmar where Soe Thein will not tread: northern Kachin State, a battleground between state forces and the native Kachin Independence Army. “There is a lot of gold in Kachin State,” he said, “but also a lot of fighting.”
He is more keen on eastern Karen State, where villagers using ancient panning techniques are driven out by larger operators with industrial blast hoses. “The villagers don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “They only look for solid yellow rocks. If it’s mixed with another substance, they just throw it on the ground. Such a waste.”
At last, the fall of sanctions has freed Soe Thein to summon the sort of partner he has awaited for decades. “A Canadian friend is landing this weekend,” he said. “We will go treasure hunting!”
China’s Power Push
However coveted, Myanmar’s mineral reserves are only its third most-popular investment among foreign operators. Mining is dwarfed by energy, a