When Aung San Suu Kyi met recently with her long-time nemesis, retired general Than Shwe, after her party’s stunning election victory in November 2015, it was heralded as a harbinger of a smooth democratic transition in Burma. But hundreds of miles north of the capital, Naypyidaw, is a tangle of entrenched economic interests and abuse those leading this transition don’t want to openly discuss.
This week, a landslide in the jade mining town of Hpakant, in Kachin State, killed one miner and buried another 10; a November landslide killed more than 110 workers. The miners were working at a site used by dozens of Burmese and Chinese companies that have dramatically increased mining in the past year, driving many small-scale miners to scavenge for small jade deposits the machinery misses, in dangerous dump sites where landslides are common. Since large-scale mining resumed in 2014, profits have skyrocketed, but that has done little to reduce the threats to miners’ safety.
In a major report on the jade trade in October 2015, the advocacy group Global Witness estimated that renewed large-scale mining generated US$12.3 billion in jade sold to China in 2014. Among the major beneficiaries of this new trade? Than Shwe’s family, which controls Kyaing International and Myanmar Naing Group, two companies at the heart of this lucrative business, in association with Kywe Wa Sone company, which Global Witness estimates profited $220 million on formal jade sales in 2013 and 2014 alone.
Working conditions in Hpakant are dreadful for miners, where death by accident or suspected extrajudicial killings by state or company security forces are routine, drug abuse is rife, and corruption operates in favor of the Burmese military and their partners, predominantly Chinese mining companies. American and Japanese companies selling mining equipment are also profiting. A prominent Kachin jade miner and leader of the Peace-talk Creation Group told me in Myitkyina recently that, “there is no business [in Burma] where some family of the military is not involved. They’re in everything.”
A post-election surge in mining has led to protests and blockades by local residents, and threats of legal action by authorities, exacerbating the already poor working conditions. In January, Burma makes its first report to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI) process, which it joined with much fanfare in 2014. The EITI promotes more open and accountable management of extractive revenues by governments and companies and involves civil society. Given the human rights abuses that currently riddle the country’s resource industry, the report could shed new light on the sector’s finances. But the future government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will need to do much more to clean up the human rights and other problems that plague the trade in jade, one of the most deadly and dirty of extractive sectors in Burma.