We were in a monastery in Sagaing which overlooked the Irrawaddy River – the river that flows from the north to the south of Myanmar. L spotted a big boat transporting coal on the river and she asked our driver, “Does Myanmar have coal?”
Our driver replied, “Yes, we have coal mines here in Sagaing and in other parts of Myanmar.”
I responded, “Wow, Myanmar is really rich in resources. You have jade, gold, silver, rubies, minerals…”
He interjected, “Yes, my country even has oil reserves. You see, my country is very rich in resources but the people are still very poor.”
Recently, I read “Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization” written by Parag Khanna and he argues that in this increasingly globalised and connected world, the one who controls the supply chain wins. Another way to put that is that the one who controls the supply chain remains at the top of the chain by exploiting the people who are below them in the chain. For instance, the jade industry makes up almost 50 % of the GDP of Myanmar. In the year 2014, the elite class of Myanmar (military-connected businessman) was found to have appropriated roughly $31 billion USD worth of jade and that’s incidentally almost 50 % of the GDP. While the rich elite in the country profit handsomely from the jade trade, many people in the jade-producing region still live below the poverty line. In Myanmar, it has been estimated in 2016 by the Asian Development Bank that 25.6% of the population lives below the poverty line.
The problem with trying to be critical about the mechanisms of the global supply chain is that no one (not even the United States of America who likes to play big brother) is on a neutral ground. We either exploit other people in one way or another or be exploited. Most of the material transactions that fuels the global economy (e.g. clothes, cars, gadgets) involves exploitation of cheaper labour somewhere else. Will fair trade always remain as a dream?