Villagers to Protest Over Grisly Death of Kachin Jade Picker

By Lawi Weng 18 November 2014

RANGOON — Hundreds of villagers will protest this week after a jade scavenger was allegedly murdered and mutilated in Hpakant, a resource-rich area in northern Burma’s Kachin State.

Nineteen-year-old Gum Ja Awng, also known as Ze Lum, was found dead on the site of the Blue Star Mining Co. in late October. His family claimed that they unearthed his severed body parts from various parts of the worksite.

“His body was found chopped up and scattered on the grounds of the Blue Star Company,” one of the protest organizers, Sar Gyi, told The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, adding that the victim’s family has implicated the company and demonstrators will demand a full investigation when they convene on Thursday in the streets of Hpakant.

Gum Ja Awng is survived by his wife and their 2-year-old son in Wa Jade Maw village, about three miles from the Blue Star site. Like many poor, ethnic villagers in the area, he made a living by sifting through waste near commercial mines, collecting bits of raw jade.

Many peruse the rubble at night, when the dark and dangerous dumping grounds are untended.

“[Gum Ja Awng] left his home around 9pm to collect raw jade where the company dumps their waste,” said Sar Gyi. Traditionally, he explained, locals have collected raw stones in small-scale mines with poor technology and a high risk of injury.

In recent decades, however, commercial mining operations have been granted land concessions in some of the richest areas, leaving locals to scavenge their leftovers. Picking is illegal on company grounds, but for many it is still worth the risk.

“Since the companies came, we have little opportunity,” said Hla Maung, another protest organizer. “They took our land. Now they have killed and cut up a Kachin man. We want to show that we no longer feel secure with these companies here.”

Hpakant’s large-scale mining operations were suspended in 2012, not long after the breakdown of a 17-year ceasefire between the government and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), an ethnic armed group that has long been at odds with the government over regional autonomy.

Since mining was suspended, only illicit small-scale excavators have worked in the Hpakant hills.

Conflict continued between the government and the KIA, though both sides have participated in a series of peace negotiations geared toward an eventual but as yet elusive ceasefire. The KIA is the only major ethnic armed group 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.

In July, the Ministry of Mines announced that mining would resume in Hpakant as of Sept. 1. A senior official said that about 700 mining companies worked in Hpakant and nearby Lone Khin before the hiatus. Those whose licenses were still valid could resume work, while the others would need new permits before re-entering their former sites.

Fighting resumed near Hpakant when government troops entered rebel-controlled territories in mid-August, local sources told The Irrawaddy. About 200 villagers were displaced by the skirmishes, the sources said. The government said they would allow the resumption of mining as planned.

Tensions escalated since the re-entry of commercial miners, as militarization increased after the KIA demanded taxes from large-scale operators. No conflict has been reported in recent weeks.

Kachin State is one of 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.