Myanmar’s Jade Center Suspends Most Mining Amid Coronavirus Spike

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Myanmar’s Jade Center Suspends Most Mining Amid Coronavirus Spike People walk near buildings belonging to a jade mining operation in Hpakant township, northern Myanmar's Kachin state, Dec. 7, 2020.

The Myanmar government has suspended large-scale jade-mining activities in Kachin state, home to the world’s largest jade mine and a magnet for poor scavengers, until early next year in the face of surging coronavirus infections, the state’s natural resources minister said.

Large-scale mining in Hpakant township, notorious for deadly landslides that take scores of illegal miners’ lives each year, had been suspended since July for the rainy season. The mine closures have been extended until the end of January due to the high number of COVID-19 cases, said Dashi La Seng, Kachin state’s minister of natural resources and environmental conservation.

Small-scale mines, however, can remain in operation if they follow coronavirus prevention guidelines, he said.

“We have allowed the small jade miners to operate as we have the authority as the state government to supervise the jade mines,” Dashi La Seng said. “It was the Union government’s decision to suspend all large-scale mining operations until the end of January.”

Hpakant township, the center of Myanmar’s jade sector, reported 302 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 127 people receiving medical treatment as of Wednesday. On Thursday, Myanmar recorded 113,082 confirmed cases, including 1,182 new ones, and 2,377 deaths since March, the Ministry of Health and Sports said.

RFA could not verify how many large mines were affected by the latest suspension due to a lack of transparency in the industry as several ethnic armed organizations and Myanmar’s powerful military have financial interests in jade mining, making money through both formal and informal investments.

Union government officials were not immediately available for comment.

Small and medium enterprises licensed by the state government are allowed to continue operating in line with rules and regulations to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Shwe Thein, chairman of National League for Democracy’s office in Seik Mu village in Hpakant township, said authorities should reopen the jade mines because the closures are causing hardship for local people whose livelihoods depend on them.

“Local people were suffering from poverty and starvation even before the pandemic,” he said.

“There was an extended period of time when licenses for jade or gold mining activities were not issued,” he added. “This has created hardship for local ethnic people.”

Deadly landslides

Hpakant township resident Tu Maing said that some people there were complying with social-distancing and lockdown orders and other rules issued by the health ministry to prevent the spread of the virus, while others were not.

“Those who have not complied need to make a living, he said. “Many people are in favor of reopening the mining businesses that have been closed if infection rates fall. So far, we have had to accept the closures because it is important to avoid infections.”

Before the closures, a deadly mudslide at a mine in Whey Khar village in Hpakant township in early July killed more than 170 jade scavengers and injured over 50 others.

Heavy rains triggered the collapse of huge piles of muddy waste known as tailings created a “lake of mud” full of bodies of scavengers who handpicked jade stones in abandoned mining projects.

At least 300,000 men and women in the Hpakant area rely on scavenging to eke out a living, with most of the pieces they find exported illegally to jade markets in neighboring China, where demand for the gemstone is high.

The risk of deadly mudslides remains high amid torrential rains that saturate the country from late May to October.

Most privately owned jade mining companies temporarily cease operations during the monsoon season, presenting a good opportunity for scavengers, or yemase as they are known locally, to dig around for scraps of the stone.

At least 50 jade miners died during mining accidents in 2019, and 113 people died in 2015, the year with the previous highest number of deaths.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced the state-owned Myanma Gems Enterprise (MGE) to cancel emporia for official sales of jade and other gemstones to domestic and international buyers, according to a November brief by the Natural Resource Governance Institute on the impact of the virus outbreak on Myanmar’s extractive sector.

Government earnings from emporium sales in 2020 are almost nonexistent, the brief said.

Reported by Elizabeth Jangma for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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