Myanmar Travel Report
To quote a friend in the Myanmar mining industry, “If you want to find elephant-sized mineral deposits, then go hunting in elephant country”. Without a doubt, Myanmar is elephant country.
In January I was invited on a site visit to the Bawdwin mine in northern Shan State, majority owned by Australian-listed Myanmar Metals (ASX: MYL) but whose history dates back to 1412 when early Chinese miners used primitive methods to mine an elephant of a lead/zinc/silver deposit with bonanza grades of greater than 800 grams per ton of silver. Having been an informal operation for hundreds of years, in the early 1900’s the area was developed into a world class mine, making it the single largest lead, zinc, and silver producer in the world pre-World War II era. A true time capsule which well illustrates many aspects of Myanmar, the Bawdwin mine’s development was led by Herbert Hoover (prior to his 1929 US presidency) and it ultimately fell into the hands of the Japanese during World War II, before being nationalized by the then Socialist Burmese government. Only in 2009 was the mining license sold to a private company with the aim of putting Bawdwin back into production. This led the company in 2015 to partner with MYL who is footing the bill to prove up the existing resource and put this behemoth of a mine back into production.
Nothing in Myanmar is simple, neither the politics, the culture, nor the landscape. As such, it was only appropriate that as our ATR took off from Yangon International Airport to Lashio, the capital of Northern Shan State, we would not be flying direct, but rather doing a puddle jump through Heho airport in Southern Shan State (home of the famous Inya Lake) and then continuing onward to Lashio. Having spent time in South Shan before, I was looking forward to being in North Shan as it is a region steeped in a fascinating history of immense mineral wealth, fiefdoms and happens to be the regional birthplace of many of Myanmar’s current tycoons.
Landing in Lashio airport around 15:00 the group I was with had to go through immigration (even though we never left the country), something I always found strange in Myanmar for our hotel still registers us with immigration and if we were to drive instead of fly to Lashio the same bureaucratic procedure would not have applied. But after all, this is Myanmar, a country where you learn to not question the out of the ordinary.
After gathering into two cars we drove to visit a zinc refinery on the outskirts of town. A Burmese and Chinese partnership, the zinc refinery is modest in size, but has been processing the tailings of the Bawdwin mine which are still rich in zinc. The management and workers were mostly Chinese which makes sense as China has a big and growing influence in Shan, as well as this refinery being less than 200km from the Chinese border meaning China is the natural buyer of most materials produced in the region.