Miners risk all for Cambodia rubies
BORAI, Thailand Thousands of fortune hunters risk land mines and malaria digging for rubies in the war zones of guerrilla-controlled western Cambodia.
Ruby fever has gripped this border town. Miners tell their adventures in bustling poolrooms and bars.
Lucky miners make fortunes, as in the gold rushes of the American West in the 19th century. They emerge from the jungle with pockets full of rubies.
Wutipong Sophapong, owner of a gas station in Borai, sat on his back porch fondling several hundred gems - dug from his yard in a single day, he said.
The Khmer Rouge captured the area east of Borai in 1989 and opened the border to Thai miners to help finance its war with Cambodia's Vietnam-sponsored government.
About 50,000 miners a month trek over the Ban Thad Mountains into the Cambodian jungles, according to Thai authorities. They say hundreds have died there, about one-third return with deadly cerebral malaria and others lose limbs to land mines.
Despite the risks, newcomers arrive every day.
"Over this mountain a few days' walk, you just stick your hand in the ground and the dirt is filled with red jewels," a miner said, his eyes sparkling while he waited to be checked for malaria.
The Khmer Rouge, who abolished money and all forms of private enterprise during their brutal 3 1/2 years in power, now oversee a sophisticated mining operation that miners and provincial officials say brings them millions of dollars a month.
Each miner pays the equivalent of $60 for access to the region and can keep whatever he finds. Officials say the windfall may allow the Khmer Rouge to buy weapons on the black market if supplies dry up from China, which is among the world powers searching for a peace formula in Cambodia.
Borai District officials estimate that more than 100 million baht ($4 million) change hands every day in deals over rubies.
"There are a lot of 3 or 4 million baht stones," the district chief of Borai said. "The most valuable one so far went for 24 million baht," about $1 million.
Less than a yard from where Wutipong sat on his back porch, the yard disappeared into a 100-foot-deep hole the size of a football field. The hole was filled with pumps, workers and two cranes worth $280,000 each, which the gas station owner bought after striking it rich a few months ago.
"There is an old canal under my house and we found rubies on both sides, so we are going to tear down the house in a few weeks," he said.