Kachin women’s group speaks out on how the Myanmar military profits from deadly jade mines

Burma Army troops guard a jade mine entrance as scavengers wait to enter. Photo: Kachin Women's Association Thailand (KWAT).

A new report by a Kachin women’s group shows how the Myanmar military profits from the country’s deadly jade mining industry, driving the country’s civil wars and taking wealth away from local ethnic communities.

Editorial

It’s been over two months since a landslide of mud and mining scrap washed into an open jade mine in northern Myanmar’s Kachin State, killing at least 174 people.

In the early morning of July 2, a 1,000-foot pile of waste and rock on the edge of the Gwihka jade mine, near the town of Hpakant, collapsed. The rock and mud slid into the lake at the bottom of the mine, burying hundreds of workers scavenging for jade.

In the wake of the disaster, a familiar “jade blame game” ensued, with fingers pointing in every direction and much lip service about the need for accountability and reform. As Myanmar is swept up in election fervor and faces a new outbreak of COVID-19 in Rakhine State, the deadly issue of jade mining has faded once again into the background.

But according to a new report published by the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), jade mining—and control of land and natural resources more broadly—is central to Myanmar’s ongoing violent conflicts between the ethnic communities across the country and the Myanmar military.

The new report outlines how the Gwihka mine collapse is just the latest instance in which those at the bottom of the country’s economic ladder, like the hundreds of thousands who work the jade mines, suffer while extractive industries take money away from local ethnic communities. The jade mining industry has also depleted and polluted local rivers, denying local residents access to water.

According to KWAT, the Myanmar military is responsible for failing to enforce safety precautions at the Gwihka jade mine. The military actively profits from links to jade mining companies as well as extortion from the scavengers themselves, incentivizing military leaders to keep mines open at all costs. All jade extracted at Gwihka is valued and sold to dealers soon after it’s mined, with a cut of each sale going to the military.

The military finally moved to block access to the mine on June 25 amid monsoon rains. But this only meant the end of mining companies’ formal extraction from the area that collapsed on July 2—scavengers, and the soldiers who collect cash payments from them, were still allowed into the area.

Map showing how the disaster happened. Credit: KWAT

As one scavenger who survived the landslide recounts, “When it started falling, I tried to run to higher ground, but the waves were so strong I was sucked under. I was under the water for about ten minutes. I was praying all the time. I still have my parents and I need to take care of them.

“I managed to survive from being battered under the mud and water,” he told KWAT. “My two friends also survived. I was naked because my clothes were pulled off by the mud and water. My phone and all my possessions were lost. There were some warning posts on the mining waste piles [outside the mine] but none in the mine or where the landslide happened.”

The Myanmar military’s control over natural resources is driving the country’s civil wars

According to the Kachin women’s report, the response to the deadly collapse has been feeble and stands little chance of improving the safety or transparency of the mining industry. The government moved to charge a small group of low-level local jade mining bosses over the collapse and a few military officers were reassigned. The panel set up to investigate the incident included Minister of Home Affairs Lieutenant General Soe Htut, who owns a share of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), a military-run firm with major investments in the jade industry.

As long as the military maintains its occupation of Myanmar’s jade mines and the surrounding areas, local communities and those forced into the mines by poverty will continue to face the consequences of the dangerous industry while generals at the highest levels extract a profit.

Following the collapse in July, KWAT is calling for a moratorium on large-scale resource extraction projects, including mining, until Myanmar sees “genuine peace and devolution of power under a new federal constitution—giving local people control of their lands and natural resources.”

According to KWAT, the collapse on July 2 is the latest evidence that the Myanmar military must withdraw from the country’s ethnic areas in order for any meaningful political dialogue to progress, especially around natural resource management.

Image showing a bridge spanning the Gwihka Stream, now dried up due to mining. Photo: KWAT

No accountability as Myanmar military controls Hpakant jade mines

Large-scale jade mining in Gwihka began around 40 years ago, with the area primarily under the control of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) until the ethnic armed group reached a ceasefire with the Myanmar military in 1994. Between 2011 and 2015, however, the Myanmar military launched a series of campaigns to take control of the area’s jade mines. The conflict pushed thousands of civilians out of their homes and into IDP camps.

In the run-up to the July 2 collapse, mining at Gwihka was primarily run by three companies—Yadana Kye, Ayeyar Yadana and 111 Company. Yadana Kye is directly tied to the Myanmar military through Myanmar Thura Gems, according to the KWAT report. The report includes a detailed table of each company involved in mining at the Gwihka site, along with the location of its operations and the owners’ names.

The military unit in charge of securing the Gwihka mine, Light Infantry Division 33, is infamous for its role in the genocide against the Rohingya in Rakhine State in 2017. The commander in charge of the mine at the time of the collapse was Zaya Nyo, according to KWAT. As Moon Nay Li, a spokesperson for KWAT, put it, “How could troops who have killed and raped civilians with impunity, be expected to protect the lives of jade miners?”

The Gwhika mine itself already had a deadly track record before July: a landslide in December 2016 killed 20 people and another in May 2018 killed around 100, though only three bodies were recovered.

As one KWAT spokesperson told Kachin News Group, “Our objective is to highlight their failure to take care of the security of these people. We collected information from local people in the Gwihka area. We prioritized the voices of local people. Our report is based on their feelings, their voices and what they have faced.”

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