Govt Closes Jade Mines to Squeeze KIO

By Lawi Weng 1 June 2012

The Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) has claimed that the Burmese government is attempting to block its main means of income by ordering jade mining companies in Hpakant Township to halt production.

The KIO’s military wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), is currently engaged in a protracted conflict with government troops in northernmost Burma and has interests in the area’s mining operations.

“They are trying to block our income by closing the mining companies there,” Col James Lum Dau, KIO deputy head of foreign affairs, told The Irrawaddy on Friday. “Let’s see how much success they have. They will one day regret what they will lose from invading other people’s land.”

Insiders fear that the lack of ready cash may cause the KIA problems buying armaments and supplies. The KIO is already struggling to provide aid for refugees as the government has blocked UN agencies from reaching the area since the middle of May.

Hpakant is situated 159 km to the northwest of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin State. The region is famous for producing precious jade stones and hundreds of workers from different part of Burma, especially around Mandalay and Arakan State, flock there to find work.

However, many have already returned to their hometowns after the Ministry of Mining set May 31 as the deadline for companies to stop work for a period of five months. The ministry said the closures were to preventing dangerous flooding and landslides during the rainy season which claims many lives each year.

Zaw Moe Htet, a jade businessman from Hpakant, said that the government has never ordered a mining operation to close for this reason before. However, he revealed that many relatives of KIO leaders invest in the mines and then pass on funds to the rebel group.

According to the Kachin Development Network Group (KDNG), foreign mining companies from China and Russia have already left Hpakant after Naypyidaw deployed more troops in the area to target KIA Brigade 2.

The KDNG said that jade forms the main income for the KIO, which allowed mining in the area to the detriment of the local environment since signing a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in 1994.

“There is political conflict in Kachin State,” said KDNG spokeswoman Seng Mai. “We do not want the companies to come back. They should only come back when the conflict has been resolved.”

She said that local people should benefit from mining operations while the environment must be protected to international standards.

Fierce fighting has taken place in Kachin State ever since a 17-year ceasefire agreement between the KIO and Burmese government broke down last June. Around 75,000 refugees have been forced to flee from their homes to live in temporary camps by the Sino-Burmese border.

“We offered them mining areas during the ceasefire,” said James Lum Dau. “But they want more now and they come and attack us. They are the people who come and make problems for us.”

Railways Minister Aung Min, Naypyidaw’s leading peace negotiator, met the KIO on Friday for informal talks in Mai Ja Yang, Kachin State, after an initial meeting in Chiang Rai, northern Thailand, on May 21.

Several rounds of peace talks have already taken place between the parties to no avail, but observers are hopeful that the latest efforts could prove fruitful after a new peace team comprising Aung Min and Burmese President Thein Sein was formed last month.