Myanmar landslide shines harsh spotlight on jade industry

Church condemns government, companies for disaster that killed more than 100 people
Myanmar landslide shines harsh spotlight on jade industry

Rescue teams search for the bodies of miners killed in a landslide in a jade mining area in Hpakant, in Myanmar's Kachin state, on Nov. 22. (Photo by AFP)

Church leaders have raised concerns about environmentally damaging practices and human dignity in Myanmar’s notorious multibillion-dollar jade mining industry, after a landslide killed more than 100 people in northern Kachin state.

The Nov. 21 landslide buried around 70 makeshift huts where migrant workers lived. The huts were located in the ravine between two mountains of soil dumped by a mining company near Hpakant township.

Bishop Francis Daw Tang of Myitkyina said the disaster was the fault of government regulators and the mining companies, as they had neglected the potential safety implications for workers by lacking systems for properly managing soil dumps.

"We need to respect human dignity, as lots of young people across the country are coming for business opportunities by working as small-scale miners," Bishop Daw Tang told ucanews.com on Nov. 23.

"The government and companies need to educate the people about hazards and risks, otherwise this kind of accident is most likely to occur again, by neglecting the lives of people."

The bishop added that the government and companies need to carry out jade mining with consideration for environmental destruction.

The nongovernmental organization Global Witness said in an October report that the value of Myanmar jade produced in 2014 alone was US$31 billion, a figure that would equate to 50 percent of Myanmar’s declared GDP. It claimed its research showed most of the precious stone is sold into China on the black market.

 

Clean government

By the evening on Nov. 22, 103 bodies had been recovered at the disaster site by rescue workers including the Red Cross. It remains unclear how many migrant workers are working in the jade mine areas of Kachin State, where landslides are not uncommon, but the Nov. 21 tragedy is the worst in a decade, according to local sources.

"Companies who have close ties to the military get much profit from large-scale digging in jade mining areas, yet local Kachin people get no benefit," La Ja, a Catholic catechist, or lay teacher of the faith, from Hpakant township, told ucanews.com.

"Local people face flooding every rainy season as dumped soil blocks … the streams," he added.

The death toll from the Nov. 21 landslide could rise, with scores of people still missing, he said.

U Lama Yaw, a spokesman for the Kachin Baptist Convention in the Kachin capital of Myitkyina, told ucanews.com that "only a handful of people get profit from the jade businesses as they don’t care about the people of the country. That’s why we need to have a clean government and a good governance."

It also remains to be seen what the National League for Democracy, which convincingly won Myanmar’s Nov. 8 election and is in a position to select the next president in early 2016, will do about the lax practices in the jade sector.

Sign up to receive UCAN Daily Full Bulletin
Thank you. You are now signed up to our Daily Full Bulletin newsletter
Lashi La Seng, the party’s MP-elect for Hpakant township in state parliament, said that a new government would need to amend mining laws and regulations so that the companies would implement basic standards as well as provide education to workers about the risks of landslides.

"The NLD has already stated that it will carry out the federal union system so we need to discuss more on resource sharing and how it will be channeled for spending on the development of the state as well as across the country," La Seng told ucanews.com

The Global Witness report raised concerns about staggering levels of abuse and impunity in Myanmar’s lucrative jade business.

"Big companies licensed by the government are making a killing. They are grabbing jade worth tens or hundreds of millions a year, while leaving locals and migrant workers to run the gauntlet of deadly landslides caused by the companies’ reckless dumping practices," said Mike Davis, asia director at Global Witness, said in a statement on Nov. 22.

"The government must act to demonstrate that it is serious about ending the impunity that has turned Hpakant, the source of the ‘stone of heaven’, into a small corner of hell for the people that live there."

© Copyright 2019, UCANews.com All rights reserved
© Copyright 2019, Union of Catholic Asian News Limited. All rights reserved
Expect for any fair dealing permitted under the Hong Kong Copyright Ordinance.
No part of this publication may be reproduced by any means without prior permission.