Jade mining companies and government departments should be charged in the deaths of more than 170 jade pickers in a landslide in Gwi Hka mine in Hpakant Township in early July, representatives of Kachin civil society organizations (CSOs) said.
While the government count of bodies recovered from the landslide is 172, locals in Gwi Hka say that more than 180 people have been found dead. They were jade pickers, people who sort through piles of mining waste left by major companies in search of jade stones that may have been overlooked.
A government committee headed by Union minister for natural resources and the environment Ohn Win and tasked with investigating the causes of the landslide came to the site of the disaster and observed the situation in Hpakant for three days.
Ohn Win was quoted in Burmese-language media and by Hpakant-based civil society organizations as saying on July 5 at the collapsed Gwi Hka mine that the jade pickers “died for their greed.”
Police then proceeded to detain three businessmen known to have bought jade from pickers.
Hkawn Ja, a coordinator of the Kachin Peace Network, criticized this move as “bullying the weaker side” of a multibillion-dollar jade industry.
“Landslides in Hpakant were not caused by jade pickers,” she told KNG. “Jade mining companies have used big machinery and excessively extracted jade from Hpakant’s mines. They didn’t extract it systematically. That’s why landslides frequently occur in Hpakant.”
Nawng Lat, who is working with Hpakant-based CSOs, agreed that the government should not have pursued the arrest of the three businessmen.
“These businessmen were able to give jobs to jade pickers in the Hpakant area. Frankly, the government cannot create jobs for these jade pickers. The government should consider this issue very carefully,” Nawng Lat told KNG.
Kai Ring, who is working with the Hpakant-based Kachin Social Development, named four major companies working in Gwi Hka: Aya Yadana, Triple A, Aye Yadana, and the ethnic Wa Yadana Star.
On July 6, the Burmese military’s True News Information Team reported that the Burma Army had taken action against a high-ranking commander and the Kachin State border affairs and security minister for the Gwi Hka landslide.
Hpakant parliamentarian Khin Maung Myint said that the gemstone law being used in the country was drawn up by the previous Thein Sein-led government, and while the current National League for Democracy (NLD) administration drew up a new law, it has not been put into practice.
“According to the gem law of Thein Sein’s government, if a jade mine is 50 or 100 acres, it must be a joint venture between the government and an investment company,” Khin Maung Myint said, adding that there had been no by-law issued by that administration. “Our NLD government already drew up a by-law for the gem law. Under the by-law, big mining projects are not allowed, and only medium- and small-sized projects would be allowed to operate in Hpakant. The problem is that the by-law is still not active. If this by-law was enforced, there would be no more landslides in Hpakant.”
Locals criticized the NLD government’s investigation committee as failing to interview eyewitnesses and locals about the circumstances surrounding the Hpakant landslide during their investigation.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on August 3 to provide more details regarding the environmental minister’s statement.