RANGOON — Jade mining operations in northern Burma’s Kachin State will not be officially halted due to ongoing conflict in the area, according to a Ministry of Mines official.
Fighting between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) intensified in areas near Hpakant last week, causing thousands of civilians to flee and seek shelter in nearby churches.
“So far, we don’t plan to stop jade mining operations due to recent fights,” Assistant Director of the Ministry of Mines Min Thu told The Irrawaddy on Friday. The official added that operators have been advised to extend their licenses no later than Feb. 11.
“There will be new plots for new mining companies to work there, and we encourage recently licensed companies to extend their permits soon,” he added. The ministry grants three-year concessions for a fee of 300,000 kyats (US$300).
Jade mining in the area was suspended in 2012 following the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the KIA, an ethnic armed group fighting for greater autonomy in the resource-rich state.
Mines reopened in September 2014 amid growing concerns about armed conflict in the militarized area.
According to a senior official from the state-owned Myanmar Gems Enterprise, prior to the 2012 suspension there were about 700 companies mining in Hpakant and Lone Khin townships. He could not speculate on the number of mines that are currently in operation since licensing resumed last year.
During the two-year hiatus, many of the area’s impoverished residents took to hand-picking stones in the vacated lots. Locals said that many people still practice small-scale mining and hand-picking within company grounds and in their waste heaps.
Picking on company grounds is illegal and often dangerous, but for many it is still worth the risk.
Local gems trader U Cho said local hand-pickers have targeted specific companies to loot and vandalize.
“Early this year, I heard the Kyaing International jade mining company was burned down by local hand-pickers. Someone said this company was owned by former Snr-Gen Than Shwe’s son, and he works with the Chinese so they burned it,” said U Cho.
Other mines have also been targeted by rogue civilians, including the Aung Hein Min mine in Mhawwangyi, he said. “The KIA told these companies to stop their operations because of the recent situation, that’s what I heard.”
The KIA is one of the only major ethnic armed groups in Burma that has not reached a bilateral pact with the government, even as negotiators continue their push for an inclusive, nationwide agreement to conclude the country’s myriad other insurgencies.
Kachin State is among the world’s last remaining sources of jade, and is also rich in other gems, minerals and valuable timber. Resource extraction has long been both a major cause and source of revenue for conflict in the remote ethnic state bordering China.