03/02/2022, 14.20
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At least 17 die in a jade mine accident in Kachin state

Myanmar’s military junta has blocked access to rescue teams at the site of the incident Attempts by the National League for Democracy to reform the sector ended with last year's coup. Gem mining and smuggling into China continue to be a source of income for generals and some ethnic militias.

Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) – The civil war that has raged between Myanmar’s military and ethnic militias for the past 13 months has not stopped the exploitation of the country’s resources and workers.

At least 17 people were killed, buried in a landslide, at a jade mine in the northern state of Kachin. The incident occurred around 10.30 pm on Monday in Hpakant district.

Yangon Technical and Trading, the company that owns the site, is linked to Myanmar’s military junta, which has so far prevented rescue teams from getting to the accident site. Local sources say at least 40 people were trapped.

According to Global Witness, an NGO that documents natural resource exploitation, the jade market was worth more than half of Myanmar's gross domestic product in 2014, around US$ 31 billion.

It is estimated that about 90 per cent of the jade traded around the world comes from Myanmar mines where scores of people die each year largely because of unsafe mining practices.

After the military seized power in a coup d'état on 1 February 2021, reforming the sector has become virtually impossible. Most of the mining companies employ migrant workers digging earth with their bare hands, and then illegally selling their own products, especially in China.

“The workers’ rights in jade mines are never ensured by law – whenever they die in a landslide, they get a small compensation,” said a local environmental activist, who declined to be named, speaking to Agence France Press.

What is more, many miners not only work in unregulated conditions but also take drugs to withstand the harsh working conditions.

The first stage in Jade mining requires the use of dynamite, which is imported into the country by Aung Pyae Sone, son of the head of the ruling military junta, General Min Aung Hlaing, this according to Keel Dietz, co-author of the latest report published last year by Global Witness, who spoke to Al Jazeera.

After the ground in open pit mines is blasted, machines move in to pick up the rubble, which is then sifted by miners.

Hpakant is infamous for its landslides, often caused by heavy rain. In 2020 at least 300 died in the country’s worst accident.

During a previous civil war, pitting ethnic Kachin militias against the Myanmar military, gems and precious stones funded both sides of the conflict.

In the 1990s, the military controlled the Hpakant region, and only in 2016 was the National League for Democracy, the party of Aung San Suu Kyi, able to implement a series of reforms, such as the suspension of new licences, to cut the toxic ties between corruption, ethnic conflicts and the gem trade.

Before the coup, military commanders were paid bribes to allow smugglers to pass through checkpoints from Hpakant to Myitkyina and Mandalay.

Whilst Chinese sellers can earn up to US$ 500 from the green stones, middlemen make US$ 150 against US$ 60 for miners.

As a result of the coup, the ethnic militias operating along the country’s borders also increased their involvement in the illegal smuggling of gems to fund the purchase of weapons.

The European Union recently tried to target the Myanmar junta's other sources of income with sanctions, including oil and gas companies, industries that brought in US$ 1.5 billion between 2020 and 2021.

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