Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi raised eyebrows when she referred to recent victims of a jade mine landslide that killed at least 172 people last week as “illegal” in an online chat in which she lamented the lack of proper jobs in the country.
Heavy rains caused piles of loose dirt and rubble to collapse on July 2, burying more than 200 scavengers looking for discarded pieces of jade left behind by miners in Kachin state’s Hpakant, the disaster-prone center of Myanmar’s jade industry. At least 20 unauthorized miners remain missing.
During an online conversation with construction industry experts a day after the mudslide, State Councilor Aung San Suu Kyi said the latest of many Hpakant jade mine disasters was “a tragic incident for our nation” that “is related to everyday hardship that the base of our society is suffering in their livelihoods.”
“Among those who lost their lives yesterday, most were illegal scavengers,” she said.
That “means that many of our people could not find jobs legally. We must accept and face this reality,” said Aung San Suu Kyi, who also called on authorities to find ways to prevent the deaths of jobless people.
Her comments ruffled feathers among people who advocate for an estimated population of 500,000 people from all over Myanmar settled near Hpakant, where they risk their lives to sift through mine castings for scraps of jade. Photos of the area show vast encampments among denuded, muddy hills.
“Putting an ‘illegal’ label on those poor miners is just like blaming the victim,” said Khun Ja, a Kachin activist from Kachin State.
“We need reform of the entire jade industry. Without it, there will be similar illegal activities popping up again, whether you call it scavenging or not."
“Whether it is legal or illegal is based on the legal framework drawn by the lawmakers,” said Khun Ja.
Scavengers are so common that some mining firms set schedules when people are allowed to pick for stones in in the rubble piles while miners are taking breaks, according to local sources.
The 2019 Myanmar Gem Law sets out mining rights for medium and small businesses, but offers no legal protection for scavengers, regional officials note.
“It is hard to deal with jade scavenging miners with the new law,” Tint Soe, a lower house MP from Hpakant township.
He says the law applies well to mining of rubies and other precious stones, which do not draw large groups of scavengers like jade pits do.
“We would like to grant legal rights and protection for those who make living by individual scavenging or picking or mining,” Tint Soe told RFA. “But it is very hard to enact as a law for it.”
With the 2019 gem law debate, “initially things did look promising, but unfortunately progress has been quite slow and quite, quite inadequate,” said Hanna Hindstrom, senior campaigner for Myanmar at Global Witness, an NGO that focuses on natural resource extraction and corruption.
She said a big part of Myanmar’s problem is that Kachin State has been a conflict zone since a ceasefire ended in 2011, with limited reach of central government authority.
"Hpakant is an extremely lawless area. There are a lot of armed groups, militias, conflict actors who operate there. Many of them have stakes in the jade mining sector,” Hindstrom told RFA in an interview this week.
“Crucially, even those draft new laws and regulations haven't really gone far enough in terms of tackling the entrenched interests of powerful actors,” she said.
Myanmar exports some $30 billion worth of jade a year, nearly all to China, but Global Witness and other monitors say true figures are hard to determine because much of the gems are smuggled to avoid Myanmar taxes and China’s high import tariffs.
The resource-rich country of 53 million people, still emerging from five decades of harsh military rule and self-isolation, ranks last in nominal per capita GDP of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), with a figure of $1,244 last year, according to the IMF.
Reported by Aung Theinkha for RFA’s Myanmar Service and by Jia Ao for RFA’s Mandarin Service. Translated by Kyaw Min Htun. Written in English by Paul Eckert.