Myanmar’s deadly jade mining

The dead body of a miner lays covered on the ground after it was recovered by search and rescue volunteers following a landslide at a jade mining area in Hpakant, in Myanmar's Kachin state on 24 April, 2019. (Zau Ring Hpra / AFP Photo)

Myanmar’s jade mining industry was dealt another blow last month when a landslide left more than 50 people feared dead.

In a poorly regulated industry plagued by corruption, dozens die each year in Myanmar’s jade mining landslides – with last month’s deaths the latest in a long string of accidents to befall the Hpakant area of Kachin state. 54 people were trapped under mud which flowed down from a collapsed reservoir made from a disused mining pit on 22 April, with some reports stating the missing were buried under 100 feet of mud – severely hampering rescue efforts. 

A similar accident occurred in March, though no one was killed. Last July, at least 42 people were killed in two separate landslides at a jade mine. In May 2018, a landslide at another jade mine killed 17 people. However, the worst reported incident was in November 2015, when more than 100 people were killed in a single landslide.

Many of these tragedies occur in Hpakant, located 950 kilometres north of Yangon. The area is the main hub for jade mining in the region, if not the world. It is estimated that Myanmar is the source of more than 70 percent of the world’s supply of high-quality jadeite. For Myanmar, jade trading is essential to its economy, contributing to almost half of its gross domestic product (GDP). According to Global Witness, an organisation that strives to expose corruption and environmental abuse, Myanmar’s jade production was worth US$31 billion in 2014 – the last year statistics are available. In the previous decade alone, it is estimated that Myanmar’s jade production was worth up to US$122 billion.

Myanmar jade
Source: Various

Despite being a multi-billion-dollar industry, workers in Myanmar’s jade mines have to put up with appalling conditions. To make matters worse, the government there turns a blind eye to the situation. The 300,000 or more people – many of whom are migrants – who come to North Myanmar with the hope of cashing in on precious jade stones are forced to live in squalid conditions. When mining for jade, these people work in mines with little or no protection and the possibility of being killed in a landslide constantly looms over their heads.

The “Wild West” conditions on the ground in Myanmar’s jade mines and trading industry is due to the environment that the industry operates in. The jade economy in Myanmar is controlled by a shadowy and corrupt network consisting of Myanmar’s military elite, Chinese shell companies and even some multi-national companies. To make matters worse, many of the jade stones are also smuggled across the border into neighbouring China.

Democracy not helping

Prior to Myanmar transitioning into a democracy in 2015, a Global Witness investigation revealed the extent of corruption that occurs in the jade trade. The investigation revealed that key figures from the military junta at the time were involved in multi-million-dollar deals. Other reports have also shown that big buyers from countries like China and Taiwan have figured out methods to avoid paying taxes for jade. Global Witness reported that US$6.2 billion in mine site tax was lost in 2014 alone.

While Myanmar might call itself a democracy after the elections of 2015, nothing much has changed in the jade trade. Although reforms were enacted with some prominent people being arrested as a result, many observers have labelled such moves as just superficial.

Jade mining is also linked to growing tensions between the government and Kachin state which has long sought autonomy and self-determination. The conflict between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Myanmar government has been on and off for more than 50 years. Last year saw a dramatic spike in violence, with over 10,000 people displaced from Kachin state since January. Some have argued that the Myanmar government refuses to give Kachin self-determination or even a fair peace deal because that would mean companies currently operating the jade mines would have to leave.

The landslides are evident that not much has changed since Aung San Suu Kyi was elected State Councillor. Myanmar’s participation in the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) to allow for greater transparency on how the country manages its natural resources is commendable – but not enough. There needs to be tighter regulations and proper enforcement. Failing which, the people who work in the mines will continue to be exploited while the corrupt elite keep on enriching themselves.

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