Myanmar’s parliamentary speaker asked the government on Monday to explain jade mining conditions and the import of heavy machinery in the northern township of Hpakant, where more than 100 people died in a landslide of mining debris last month.
A 200-foot pile of dirt and other material from mining activities that collapsed in Hpakant, Kachin state, engulfed huts in an encampment of itinerant jade scavengers and their families, killing more than 100 people.
Hpakant produces some of the highest-quality jade in the world, much of which is exported and smuggled to neighboring China where demand for the precious stone is high.
Jade mining production in the area has spiked in the last few months before the new National League for Democracy (NLD) party, which won elections on Nov. 8, assumes power in January.
The party, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has called for increased safety measures and government oversight of the industry following the landslide, the fifth such tragedy to occur at one of Myanmar’s jade mines in 2014.
Shwe Mann, speaker of the lower house of parliament, sent the letter to President Thein Sein in the wake of the deadly disaster, which has drawn attention to the dangerous work conditions of miners, most of whom are migrants from other parts of the country.
It conveyed the public’s concern about the use of earth-excavating machines and other heavy vehicles to extract jade rocks.
“I have sent the Union [Solidarity and Development Party] government this official message, suggesting that a representative come and explain the issue at a parliamentary meeting,” Shwe Mann told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The letter also noted that Myanmar’s image had been tarnished because of growing concerns about the dangers of jade mining and increased criticism by the media.
As of the end of November, nearly 630 companies, including many Chinese-led firms, were engaged in the jade mining industry on 22,500 acres of land around Hpakant, according to the government.
Win Than, a member of parliament who represents Tharpaung township in the Irrawaddy division, submitted the urgent proposal, requesting that the government explain the use of heavy machinery and bulldozers in Hpakant, Shwe Mann said.
Also on Monday, Win Tun, minister for environmental conservation and forestry, formed a group to investigate jade mining conditions.
Ministers and deputy ministers from the environment, home affairs, commerce, and rail transportation ministries will examine trade centers and interview customs staff in Myintkyina, capital of Kachin state, to determine whether the import of powerful, heavy machinery from China to jade mines in Hpakant is legal.
Tin Ye Win, director of the environment ministry’s Illegal Trade Prevention and Supervision Control Committee, said 880 heavy-duty vehicles had been imported from the Kan Pite Tee trade zone in the China-Myanmar border area, according to a recent report in the government-run Mirror newspaper.
But only 16 heavy-duty vehicles and about 130,000 other vehicles, including motorcycles, are registered in Kachin State, according to Myanmar’s Road Transport Department. No heavy machinery vehicles are registered in Hpakant.
The mining industry has taken off in Myanmar since the country’s former military regime handed power to Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government in 2011, leading to the lifting of many sanctions imposed by western nations.
Yet, the country’s U.S. $31 billion jade industry continues to be secretly controlled by networks of military elites, drug lords and crony companies linked to the country’s former military leaders, according to a report issued in October by the London-based environmental advocacy group Global Witness.
“Myanmar’s jade licensing system is wide open to corruption and cronyism,” the report said. “The main concessions are in government-controlled areas of Hpakant township, Kachin state, and blocks are awarded through a centrally-controlled process which multiple industry sources say favors companies connected to powerful figures and high-ranking officials.”
Reported by Win Ko Ko Lat, Win Naung Toe and Kyaw Myo Min for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.