Lawmakers Debate Jade Trade in Wake of Latest Landslide in Hpakant

By Yen Saning 28 December 2015

RANGOON — Burma’s deputy minister of mines on Monday outlined the ministry’s plan to crack down on illegal prospecting and improve safety in the jade mining region of Kachin State’s Hpakant, in the wake of yet another landslide.

Deputy minister Than Tun Aung told lawmakers at a parliamentary session on Monday that the government may increase its police presence in the Hpakant region and would consider shutting down jade mines in the Hpakant Township village of Lone Khin.

Than Tun Aung also canvassed the possibility of declaring martial law in the area in a bid to enforce law and order, with reports of accelerated extraction efforts in recent months.

However, parliamentarians criticized the deputy minister’s plans and called on the ministry to provide assistance to the many migrants who derive a livelihood from picking through mountains of discarded waste at mine sites in search of precious jade residue.

In a Dec. 21 session of parliament, the official vowed the ministry would “take legal action against illegal miners and prospectors who are looking for residual jade in the pilings of mining waste.”

His statement was in response to a motion submitted by Kachin lawmaker Khet Tein Nan urging solutions to some of the issues that have plagued the jade trade in Hpakant Township.

Another landslide hit Hpakant on Friday afternoon, with Than Tun Aung stating that three people were missing, as was reported in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar on Monday. Earlier reports had suggested dozens of miners may have been buried.

Deadly landslides of mine waste pilings have been all too frequent in 2015, with the deadliest such collapse killing at least 114 people last month.

Khaing Maung Ye, an MP from Ahlone constituency in Rangoon Division, said the ministry should look for more viable options to address unchecked mining and prevent further landslides while also considering what could be done for small-scale prospectors, also known as hand-pickers.

“They have to make a living without the fear of death. They have no other job to do,” said Upper House National League for Democracy (NLD) lawmaker Myat Nyana Soe.

Outspoken ruling party lawmaker Hla Swe, who chairs the parliamentary committee on mining, said companies were awarded vast areas to operate in, within a relatively short timeframe, resulting in them taking shortcuts in their operations.

He suggested giving companies more time to operate.

Independent MP Phone Myint Aung suggested a dramatic pull back in the industry so that jade could be reserved for future generations. Kachin MP Khet Tein Nan agreed, saying systematic conservation efforts were needed in the area that has come to resemble an unlivable moonscape.

According to the deputy mines minister, 857 companies are currently operating in the Hpakant region, in an industry that was suspended in May 2012 due to conflict between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Than Tun Aung also explained that there were a total of 13 designated areas for companies to discard waste on existing piles.

“I am not being biased toward the companies,” Than Tun Aung said. “The jade mining had to suddenly stop in May 2012 because no security could be guaranteed to companies as there was fighting between the Burmese military and the KIA. The KIA destroyed [machinery] and set fires in the area and small scale prospectors also came into the area.”

The official went on to deny widespread reports that much of Burma’s jade was smuggled over the border to China, while simultaneously suggesting that, if that was the case, small-scale miners may be involved.