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When Myanmar's poor die for jade crumbs

The mine tragedy is a somber reminder that the country's riches belong to all people

Thibaut Bara, Yangon

Thibaut Bara, Yangon

Updated: July 11, 2020 02:49 AM GMT
When Myanmar's poor die for jade crumbs

Migrant miners living next to a jade mine near Hpakant in Kachin state on July 5. Myanmar is one of the world's biggest sources of jadeite and the industry is supercharged by demand for the green gem from neighboring China. (Photo: AFP)

On July 2, at Hpakant in northeastern Myanmar, the country's largest open-pit jade mining site, a landslide claimed the lives of 172 miners. Workers at the site say more than 300 people were present when gigantic mountain walls caved in on them. Some 250 people are still missing in one of the deadliest tragedies in the industry.

Jade is a precious stone, especially in Chinese culture. In China, until modern times, wedding rings and weddings were not sealed around rings of gold or even silver, but around jade. Myanmar, mainly in the northern region around Kachin state, produces 70 percent of the world jade market. The purest category of jade, imperial jade, is valued at US$20,000 per kilogram, according to the NGO Global Witness. 

According to a report published in 2015, the jade industry is estimated to be worth $31 billion a year in the country, equivalent to 40 percent of Myanmar's GDP. But it remains mostly outside the control and effective taxation of the state. The industry is operated with a combination of bulldozers and an army of miners in sandals.

"On the one hand, there is very rapid industrial extraction on an unprecedented human scale, turning the mountains into lunar craters. [The] quest for speed and the absence of regulations explains the many accidents," explains analyst Richard Horsey on Twitter.

Hundreds of illegal miners wait for trucks to dump the industry debris. They dive into the debris and recover drops of wealth. In total, more than 400,000 illegal workers are trying their luck. The average income of illegal workers is estimated at $260 per month, twice the minimum wage in Myanmar.

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The jade 'mafia'

On July 3, the Myanmar government set up a committee to probe the tragedy. The committee concluded that the landslide was accidental and stressed the local authorities' irresponsibility for not having banned access to the mines.

In a surprise move of self-criticism, the army also punished two of its officials for failing to prevent access to the mines and guarantee the safety of the site. According to Horsey, this welcome reaction remains insufficient. He calls the jade industry a "mafia."

According to a report published in 2019 by the Centre For Economic and Social Development (CESD), a think tank, "every year hundreds of workers are injured and killed in accidents and landslides." This accident is not an isolated incident but a result of several significant problems in Myanmar, with the poorest being the first victims.

The greed of the rich

Myanmar's Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation U Ohn Win announced compensation to the families of the victims, some $360 each. At the time, he described the illegal miners as "greedy," pointing the finger at the victims' responsibility. 

Faced with this coldness, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, archbishop of Yangon, addressed the issue of greed in a statement on July 5. "Those who died were not only buried under a landslide of the mountain but by the landslide of injustice ... Those who perished were sacrificed on the altar of greed, by utter negligence, and arrogance of companies that continue to dehumanize the poor of this earth," it said.

While it easy to condemn the madness of the workers risking their lives, questions need to be asked about the responsibility of the real beneficiaries of this deadly industry. Almost all the jade produced is exported illegally to China.

Independent armed groups, and in particular the Kachin Independence Army, alongside the Myanmar army itself, organize the trafficking networks and the control of illegal workers. The jade production and sales sector is largely controlled by the Myanmar Gems Enterprise (MGE), a conglomerate controlled by the army and its former officers.

Trapped by poverty, Covid-19

Kum Shin Sar Aung, a young Kachin who has worked in the mines, says that "when new workers arrive — and more are arriving — the boss offers them drugs. Most of the miners become addicted. It helps them to hold on and work. When you find a rock [unworked jade], you take it back to the boss. Many try to hide them and keep them to themselves, but if they get caught, they get beaten."

In June 2019, a suspension of jade mining was ordered during the June-September monsoon season to avoid accidents. Is it possible that the Covid-19 crisis, which led to the loss of 60,000 direct jobs and heavy economic losses in rural areas, has prompted the continuation of the activity this year.

Despite the cries of alarm in the national press about the government's responsibility, it is a question of understanding the difficulty of the choices. Can a civil administration deny 400,000 working poor the right to try their luck to feed their families?

The focus is on the responsibility of the civilian government. But it remains mostly powerless because of the involvement of armed ethnic groups and the army itself in the administration.

Prohibitions cannot eradicate misery, but it can be done by "compassion and justice" as Cardinal Bo notes. "In these tragic times of Covid-19, hunger pangs cannot be quarantined. This drives these poor men to look for the jade crumbs that fall from the bulldozers of giant corporations. Millions of our citizens have lost their livelihoods in this epidemic. The tragedy of this mine is a somber reminder. We must share the treasures of nature that God has given us. The riches of Myanmar belong to the Myanmar people. This is not the first time such a tragedy has occurred, and if those responsible do not respond with compassion and justice, it will not be the last of the inhuman tragedies," Cardinal Bo warned.

This is an adapted version of an article that appeared in Eglises d'Asie (Churches in Asia), a publication of the Paris-based Missions Etrangères de Paris (MEP) or Paris Foreign Missions Society. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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