Profiting from Tragedy

“Lieutenant General Soe Htut and any other members with business ties to the jade industry must step down from the committee immediately or else the investigation cannot be credible. Part of the blame for the tragedy must go to the Myanmar military, who are the main profiteers from the jade trade and have rigged Myanmar’s legal and political system at the expense of people’s lives.”

Yadana Maung, Justice For Myanmar

A landslide that has killed at least 172 migrant workers in Hpakant, Kachin State as they were foraging for jade must act as a catalyst to end the devastating model of a deeply corrupt, highly dangerous and militarized jade industry, in which the pockets of a few elites are lined at the expense of misery, death and destruction of people and their environment.

The deaths of the at least 172 migrant workers in a landslide was triggered by heavy rains. The people who died were working as foragers, sifting through the discarded rubble from nearby excavation sites searching for small pieces of jade so they can make ends meet. The jade industry in Myanmar, and specifically the mines around Hpakant in Kachin State is huge. An in-depth investigation released in 2015 by Global Witness, using research by its local partner, Kachin Development Network Group, put the figure at over $30 billion in annual revenue. Much of this is not declared, not taxed, not regulated and extracted from the ground in the most unsafe conditions imaginable. The machinery used to extract the jade is bought from international companies such as US company, Caterpillar, Swedish company, Volvo CE and Japanese firm, Komatsu. Such companies were warned, two years ago by non-profit research organization, Swedwatch, about the “alarming environmental and human rights impacts” of the jade mining industry. The regulations for workers in this industry are virtually non-existent and landslides are common, killing dozens if not hundreds each year. Since Swedwatch warned the aforementioned international companies in 2018 about their involvement in such a harmful industry, and before this latest landslide, over 200 people had died. Thus, while the landslide last week was particularly bad, it is of absolute no surprise that it happened.

The jade industry has well-documented links to the top generals in Myanmar, including those who are retired and who served in government. They take millions of undeclared profit, paying little or no tax, and are unaccountable for such tragedies. Meanwhile, the response of the National League for Democracy government is at best meek and at worst complicit. While it announced the creation of yet another committee to investigate the incident, it has failed to do anything substantive in the five years it has been in office to reform this industry so it is transparent and accountable and to put an end to these disastrous conditions. In fact, the Chairperson of the investigation committee, the Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, Ohn Myint, sought to shift blame onto the workers themselves, labelling them greedy. Furthermore, as pointed out by a covert group of activists, Justice for Myanmar, the committee includes the Minister of Home Affairs, Lieutenant-General Soe Htut, an acting military officer and one of the largest shareholders of the military conglomerate – Myanmar Economic Holdings Company (MEHL). MEHL is also a major player in the jade mining industry and thus Soe Htut personally profits from selling jade – a significant conflict of interest. As Justice for Myanmar spokesperson, Yadana Maung stated, “Lieutenant General Soe Htut and any other members with business ties to the jade industry must step down from the committee immediately or else the investigation cannot be credible. Part of the blame for the tragedy must go to the Myanmar military, who are the main profiteers from the jade trade and have rigged Myanmar’s legal and political system at the expense of people’s lives.”

The jade industry feeds into global structures of capital flows, consumption, and supply chains. It is not just a Kachin problem, a Myanmar problem, or a China problem. It is a global problem. Chinese hunger for jade, means that corrupt military elites and their business cronies in Myanmar unscrupulously extract jade from unsafe mines in conflict-ridden Kachin State, using machinery supplied by international firms. The less money spent on making the process safe, the more profit is made. Obviously, for those whose pockets are lined from this business, the tragic loss of life is worth it. It is a sickening reflection of the greed and destruction that provide the driving force of this and many other extractive industries around the world. Ultimately, piecemeal reforms will not solve this problem. A fundamental shift in the way that Myanmar, and indeed the rest of the world, views extractive industries is needed to end these horrifying incidents. In the short-term, however, a moratorium on jade mining is urgently needed. Continuing rains in the next few months means that the potential for future landslides is very real. It has happened many times before and will continue to do so unless the moral outrage of this incident catalyzes action to, at the very least, suspend mining operations until a comprehensive plan of action and shift in policy is put into place.

As for the international community, sanctions targeting individuals such as those placed by the UK on commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing and a few individual military leaders, as well as those placed by the EU and US in response to the genocide against the Rohingya, do not stop the military’s corruption, profiting from such industries as jade, or stop them from committing human rights violations against the people of Myanmar. Therefore, imposing targeted sanctions against the military as an institution and its businesses, barring trade with them, as well as international businesses divesting from the military conglomerates such as MEHL are commendable strategic and practical steps. Such actions must be taken by the international community to put an end to the ruthless quest of the Myanmar military for profit that holds innocent people’s lives in total disregard.

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[1] 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.


Resources from the past week

actions

Statements and Press Releases

Myanmar: INGOs Concerned Upsurge in Fighting in Rakhine State Will Cause Greater Hunger, Displacement and Vulnerability

By 20 International Non Governmental Organization

HRC44 Oral Statement on Item 2: Interactive Dialogue on the High Commissioner’s Update on the Human Rights Situation of Rohingya

By FORUM-ASIA

Jade Mining Disaster Should Be Wake-Up Call for Myanmar Government

By Global Witness

Court Martial Latest Accountability Sham: Convictions Obscure Widespread Military Impunity

By Human Rights Watch

44st Session of the Human Rights Council Oral update on the human rights situation of Rohingya people (S-27/1)

By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

Human Rights Council Opens Forty-fourth Regular Session, Hears High Commissioner’s Update on the Human Rights Implications of the COVID-19 Pandemic

By Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights

New Burma Army Deployment in Eastern Mong Hsat Threatens IDPs

By Shan Human Rights Foundation

မိုင်းဆတ်မြို့နယ်အရှေ့ဘက်ခြမ်း၌မြန်မာအစိုးရစစ်တပ်မှစစ်အင်အားဖြည့်တင်းမှု ကြောင့်၎င်းဒေသအနီးရှိ စစ်ဘေးရှောင်ဒုက္ခသည် များ စိုးရိမ်ထိတ်လန့်နေကြရ

By Shan Human Rights Foundation

reports

Reports

၂၀၂၀ ခုနှစ်၊ ဇွန်လအတွင်း ရခိုင်ပြည်အရေးနှင့် ပတ်သက်သည့် သတင်းသုံးသပ်ချက်

By All Arakan Students’ and Youths’ Congress

“Secret actions and silent mega projects violating ceasefire agreement and give harms to peace in Karenni State”

By Karenni Civil Society Network

Lost in the Light: 25 Years of Ceasefire by the New Mon State Party

By Transnational Institute

အလင်းထဲက မှောင်ဝါးဝါးဖြစ်နေသော ၂၅ နှစ်ကြာ မွန်ပြည်သစ်ပါတီ အပစ်အခတ်ရပ်စဲရေး သို့မဟုတ် ငြိမ်းချမ်းရေးခရီး

By Transnational Institute

A Silver Jubilee Commemoration: The New Mon State Party’s 1995 Ceasefire

By Transnational Institute

ငွေရတုတိုင်ပြီးသည့် မွန်ပြည်သစ်ပါတီ၏ အပစ်ခတ်ရပ်စဲရေးကာလကို ခြေရာခံခြင်း

By Transnational Institute


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.”

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