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On the trail of rubies and gems …

It is widely believed that depending on sheer luck, some gemstone miners strike it rich without any effort on their part, while others spend their lifetime in the mines unable to find even one valuable gem

When asked which period he misses the most during his mining career in Mogok, U Aung Than, without any hesitation, answered it was during the mid 1970s and around 1990s. In an exclusive interview last week, he described those thriving times as ‘illegal’ and ‘black marketing’ periods.

U Aung Than, who is now 58 years old, is from Maing Thar ethnic group and grew up in Mogok’s mining area since he was a teen. During the British rule, due to scarcity of labor in the mining companies, Shan-Chinese ethnics called Maing Thar, who were industrious and were from the Myanmar-China border, were given jobs, and since that time they were working as miners in Mogok.

Mining is the main lifeline of Mogok, and it is no surprise to find residents from that town mainly working as mining entrepreneurs, laborers or dealing in gems trade.

In 1889, during the British rule, the Burma Ruby Mines Company was established, and with an investment of 150,000 pound sterling value at that time, ruby mining was extensively undertaken. Morgan, the company’s chief engineer, submitted an underground canal plan 100 feet below the Mogok valley ground surface, with seven feet high, seven feet wide and over one mile long dimensions. The plan was to contain the flooding issue in the mines, and to have excess water from the valley region flow through the canal to a low-lying Yay Ni stream near Kyauk Htat Gyi. Thus, one can imagine how extensive the mining business was in those times.

The underground canal plan was implemented in 1906. Gemstone mines in the Mogok valley, which could be dug only 20 feet in the past, could then be dug 100 feet deep. But, unfortunately, in 1925, the dugout collapsed, flooding all mines in the valley and causing a big lake to emerge. That lake is the origin of the Inngyi Lake that could be seen now in the middle of Mogok.

Mines are of two kinds – ordinary ground mines and hard rock mines, and mining can be done mechanically or manually. Machines used are water pumps, sand pumps or ore pumps. Manual mining is done with conventional methods, and mines have been given various local names, as described later, depending on their size, shape or the method used.

“Every step of mining is dangerous and risky, with mining leaders playing the most critical role,” U Aung Than said.

It can be said that miners who work inside mines have their lives safeguarded by the mining leaders. These leaders, themselves, should be well versed in each step of the mining process, predicting possible dangers in advance and planning ahead in preventing them. Deaths due to collapse of mines or lack of air inside them are the fault of mining leaders who are inexperienced in their field. Local mining leaders from Mogok can speculate which part of the town or land contains ore veins.

Together with miners, there are those who buy individual gems, traders, gem cutters and polishers, and mine owners.

“As I am not wealthy enough, I remained a miner,” U Aung Than reflected.

The local term twinlone is given to a mine dug down from the ground surface, with the hole as wide as a person to go in until a gem ore is discovered. Digging this kind of mine in ground that is not hard enough is not advisable, as diggers have to follow the ore shoot straight down or sideways, with a risk of having the mines collapsing. When the mining hole becomes deep, mirrors or silver paper foil reflectors are used to view deep inside the mine.

Some seek gemstones from bank reef ores by using powered water pumps (called myawtwin method, locally), others by wriggling inside natural caves (called loo or letkyar method), and these tactics are hard and tedious. Some use dynamite to break open hilly ore veins (called khetwin method), which is somewhat dangerous. When Mogok mining industry was nationalized in 1969 and jobs became scarce, Mogok locals, inexperienced in other occupations, resorted to illegal mining of hilly ore veins, quite distant from the town. If the dynamite quantity used is not exact, there could be dangerous explosions or ineffective. Accidents could hurt miners’ eyes and leave their facial skins torn or make their fingers torn apart.

Sharing his experience, U Aung Than said, “I can still remember the time when there was an air supply shortage inside the rock mine. Though workers on the ground used stove heat powered fan to supply air, my coworker fainted inside. At emergencies like this, the people working on the ground surface are vital. They have to be sharp enough to know what’s happening to the miners underground.”

The laybin and koebin in local terms are square dugouts, where frames of wood, bamboos, tree branches are used at regular depths, at a person’s height. Koebin is larger and stronger than laybin with more ore minerals extracted.

Air supply shortage in ground mines are most frequent in hot and dry Myanmar calendar months, such as Tabaung, Tagu, Kason and Nayon. To make sure whether there is air supply or not, one can lower down a candle tied to a string into the mine. If the candle blows out, it means there is a shortage of air supply.

Mining leaders have a tradition of offering themselves and praying to Bo Bo Gyi, a guardian spirit of Mogok gems mining area, before they commence a project. They would chant something like, “We do not depend on our strength, nor on our relatives, but only on Bo Bo Gyi’s seven spouses. Please shower upon us treasure chests and unblemished stones. We pledge to the seven spouses that we will donate quality stones, if we receive them.”

Before washing the gems ore or selecting good gemstones, offering to Bo Bo Gyi’s spiritual palace at Mogok’s Shansu ward has been a tradition since ancient times in Myanmar. They also have customs such as abstaining from consuming meat, prohibiting women folk inside the mines, or spitting chewed betel quid while in the process of mining. On their way to the mining site, they are prohibited from killing animals, and particularly not to kill snakes on the day they wash gemstone ores. Snakes are regarded as good luck, and miners would recount their experience of not even getting low-quality stone ores if they killed one. Also, they have a tradition of not picking up low-quality stones that would obstruct their good luck in getting good-quality ones later.

“When we were doing illegal mining, five neighbors would join together in working on a mine. It depends on nothing but luck alone. If each member of the group is lucky enough, they will get big stones. If the group is divided into two, one group might be lucky and get a good one, while the other might not,” U Aung Than reminisced.

According to oral history, handed down through generations, when miners would not have time to pick out gemstones and would leave the cleansed ores in the jungles just covering them up with leaves, no one would take them away. Low quality and average quality stones would be kept inside a bamboo and left in the jungles. People would be so simple and honest that they will not touch or take away the money kept back in the bamboo, after a buyer purchases the stuff they checked out inside the bamboo without anyone around.

The main problem encountered in mines is flooding and not being able to control it. Except for these hardships, nature has also bestowed some unique features. For instance, one would see the wild sunflower plants growing in the town’s western and some eastern parts where gemstones are found, and not in the remaining eastern parts where they are not found.

It is widely believed that depending on sheer luck, some gemstone miners strike it rich without any effort on their part, while others spend their lifetime in the mines unable to find even one valuable gem. In 1881, during King Thibaw’s period, one 40-year old Mogok resident named U Hmat became very wealthy after discovering many red-colored rubies in a mine near Myawgyi lake that he owned in northern Mogok. He became internationally known as the Ruby King after becoming famous with his generous donations and thriving gems trade. Although the story of Nga Mauk Ruby, discovered by one Nga Mauk from Chindwin area, is well documented in Mogok’s history and the priceless gem kept safe by succeeding Myanmar monarchs, it totally disappeared after King Thibaw was forced to abdicate by the British.

U Aung Than, now a former miner, recounted, “Before leaving, I worked as a miner from age 21 to 40, but I was not lucky enough to find anything valuable. Also, there were no more mines to work on when I left. I did not want to work in other people’s mines as a laborer, as you have to risk your own life. Besides, times have changed. In the past, if there is a potential plot, anyone could work on it, as it would not be owned by anyone. Now, we don’t even have ownerless plots left in town.”

Source : Myanmar Times

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