Activists applaud jade shakeup

Giant Chinese machinery and unrestricted digging have created a wasteland in Hpakant, Kachin State. Source: YouTube

The shakeup of the scandal-ridden Burmese jade business could reduce human rights abuses and corruption, campaigners say.

In a bold challenge to the nation’s vested interests, Nay Pyi Taw announced on Wednesday that it would not renew mining permits for jade and other gems and that no new permits would be issued until a new legal framework was introduced.

“This is a game changer,” said Juman Kubba of UK-based charity Global Witness. “It suggests Aung San Suu Kyi’s government is serious about reform and could help turn the page on the ruthless military rule, cronyism and human rights abuses of the recent past,” Kubba opined.

The industry is estimated to be worth US$31 billion, almost half of Myanmar’s GDP, but neither government coffers nor Kachin State residents benefit from the jade trade with almost all the gems heading straight across the Chinese border.

Global Witness’s report last year said military commanders and drug lords controlled and profited from the green stones which are mainly used for ornaments and jewellery.

Numerous deaths in jade mining areas of Hpakant township, which is off-limits to foreign journalists, have highlighted the sector’s lack of safety rules and accountability.

In November 2015, a massive landslide crushed makeshift huts, burying alive more than 100 people, largely poor labourers and scavengers.

Drug addiction is rife among scavengers who look for lumps of jade left by the big operators.

Control of the jade trade also remains a major driver of armed conflict between the armed forces and the large Kachin Independence Army. The rebel army is currently preparing for peace talks with the government in late August at the so-called Panglong conference. Seventeen of Myanmar’s 21 ethnic minority armies are hoping the summit will establish a federal union and devolve them significant powers.

Matthieu Salomon, the US NGO Natural Resource Governance Institute’s (NRGI) Myanmar spokesman, said the government’s announcement opened the door to jade reform.

“It has the opportunity now to set up a framework for a responsible and sustainable business, which forms part of a broader, more inclusive economy for Myanmar,” he said.

Activists now want Suu Kyi’s administration to reform the mining industry to share the benefits of the jade extraction in a transparent way.

They want the government to take measures to prevent further landslides, caused by artificial hillsides of loosely stacked discarded soil and rocks left by huge diggers from China.

As an applicant to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, an international standard to promote accountable management of natural resources, Nay Pyi Taw should publish more data on permit holders, owners of jade firms and sales records, the NRGI argued.