A landslide in the jade mining area of Hpakant, Kachin State, has taken dozens more victims, putting a spotlight on a corrupt, exploitative and violent industry. This is not the first landslide that has killed local jade miners and it won’t be the last until the industry is tidied up, taxed, regulated, and brought under a federal governance structure that addresses natural resource management and the rights of the ethnic nationalities. Moreover these rights must be fully guaranteed by law, while the Myanmar military, the prime beneficiary of this industry, must be brought under civilian control.
The landslide occurred on 22 April 2019, when the sides of a lake that had formed on the site of an abandoned jade mine collapsed, causing an avalanche of mud, trapping people and equipment. The collapse was caused by the excavation of another mine, below the site of the collapsed lake. It is estimated that 54 people were buried alive in the mud who were working during the night.
The jade industry in Myanmar is worth billions of dollars each year, up to $31 billion in 2014 according to Global Witness, as China’s thirst for the quality jade found in the mines of Hpakant, a town in Kachin State, is unrelenting. Around 300,000 migrant workers from across Myanmar come to work in these mines in unspeakably unsafe and filthy conditions, but looking to find that one large piece of quality jade that can earn them enough money to live on for the rest of their lives. Many of them scavenge the turned over ground, looking for pieces of jade that are leftover from large-scale industrial operations. The industry is not regulated properly, and leaves people vulnerable to landslides such as the one that occurred on 22 April, as companies are not forced to deal with leftover sites, or take necessary precautions. Another landslide in 2015 killed over 100 people. The work for the miners is extremeley difficult, both physically and mentally, and the presence of hundreds of thousands of young men in one area is a breeding ground for substance abuse and prostitution. Shacks selling heroin are common where a shot of heroin is less than $1. As one miner put it “When you take drugs, you feel so much stronger, more manly, and the high piles of earth don’t look so high any more. You can also find more jade.”
Yet given the toil and hardship that the workforce endure, as well as the huge environmental destruction to the area, it is particularly galling that only a handful of military, ex-military and cronies benefit, taking all the profit while paying no tax and thus depriving both Kachin State and Myanmar itself, of much-needed revenue to address poverty and underdevelopment. Armed militias affiliated with the Myanmar military, former head of the military junta, Than Shwe, and other well-connected generals rake in billions of dollars from this industry, which is worth nearly half of Myanmar’s current GDP. Yet most of this is not declared, and real ownership of the jade companies is not transparent. Furthermore, the industry fuels armed conflict and displacement. Armed actors, including druglords, Myanmar military-affiliated militias, ethnic armed organizations and the Myanmar military itself, which has the largest stake, have interests in the jade mines and use this profit to sustain the conflicts that devastate local communities in both Kachin and Shan States.
This landslide is an all too often occurrence in filthy and hugely lucrative business which the people of Myanmar do not benefit from. The jade mining operations need to be suspended until a peace process that ensures an equitable natural resource management in line with principles of federalism is guaranteed constitutionally and implemented in policy. Furthermore, those who currently benefit from the death, destruction and toil of the underclass of workers who are in danger everyday need to be brought to account for the devastation that their thirst for profit brings. The jade industry in Myanmar is a monster that pays for the worst of the violence, abuse, and displacement, at the center of which is the Myanmar military. It must be tamed.
 One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.
By Article 19
By Burma Campaign UK
By Burma Human Rights Network
By Christian Solidarity Worldwide
By Committee to Protect Journalists
By Human Rights Watch
By International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and International Film Festival Rotterdam
By Students and Youth Congress of Burma
By UN Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner
By U.S. Embassy in Burma
By Refugees International
Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”