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Scratching a living in Myanmar’s ‘land of rubies’

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For centuries, emperors, kings & warlords have vied for control over valley of Mogok
Every week, Aye Min Htun prays he will find the ruby that changes his life, one of thousands of people scratching a living in Myanmar’s mines, set to gain little from the end of U.S. sanctions on the military-dominated industry.
For centuries, emperors, kings and warlords have vied for control over the valley of Mogok, north of Mandalay, once known as the “land of rubies” for its extraordinary treasure trove of jewels.
Its unique “pigeon-blood” stones are the most expensive coloured gems in the world — last year the so-called Sunrise Ruby sold for a record $30.3 million, over $1 million a carat.
Myanmar produces more than 80 per cent of the world’s rubies, yet decades of isolation under the former military junta means the industry remains cloaked in mystery. But the focus on it is sharpening.
In October, the U.S. lifted sanctions barring imports of the rubies in recognition of the country’s shift towards democracy under the new government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
Experts fear any boom will end up lining the pockets of military men and their friends who control much of the gem trade.
Aye Min Htun earns less than $200 a month working in a small, open-cast mine on the valley floor, but if he found a valuable ruby, his commission could set him up for life.
“My dream is to set up a business if I am successful in mining,” the 19-year-old said on a rare recent visit by journalists to Mogok’s mines. “I believe in spirits... I pray they will give me a big, good-quality stone.”


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