'Sacrificed on the altar': Myanmar jade mine disaster fed by COVID-era desperation

HPAKANT (Reuters) – Sut Seng Du says he turned over 100 bodies as he clawed through the mud in a heavy downpour last week, before he finally found his brother, one of 172 people buried alive in the worst mining disaster anyone can remember in Myanmar’s “jade city”.

His brother, La Htoi, 23, was a local hero: a philosophy student and the first in the village to get into university, with a good job teaching at the local school. But then the coronavirus came, the school was shut and he was left desperate. So he went to the mines.

“The sadness is just indescribable,” said Sut Seng Du, wiping away tears after he buried the body at a small cemetery near the mine. “I did not have the strength to tell my parents about his death. I felt sorry for my mum and dad.”

Campaigners say the catastrophe shows both the desperation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – which has driven countless workers to risk their lives in the mines – and the culpability of mining companies that leave behind teetering piles of waste.

“Those who perished were sacrificed on the altar of greed, by utter negligence and arrogance of companies that continue to dehumanize the poor of this land,” said Myanmar’s Catholic Cardinal, Charles Bo.

“In these tragic times of COVID lockdown, there cannot be a lockdown of the fire of hunger that forced those poor to seek the crumbs of jade that fall from mega companies’ bulldozers.”

Myanmar produces 90 per cent of the world’s jade, most bound for neighbouring China. Most comes from Hpakant, in the remote jungles of the north, where rights groups say mining firms with links to military elites and ethnic armed groups make billions of dollars a year.

The waste they leave behind draws the informal fortune hunters known locally as “yay ma hsay”, or “the unwashed”.

Reuters was unable to contact any of the mining companies for comment. A government spokesman did not answer phone calls seeking comment on the disaster and management of the sector.

GAME OF LIFE OR DEATH

Survivors of the July 2 disaster say heavy rain caused a huge tower of waste to collapse into a lake, triggering a tsunami of mud and water.

At first it had seemed as if only a small chunk of the cliff would collapse.

“Then suddenly, in a blink, less than five seconds, the whole mountain fell off,” said Yan Myo Aung, 23.

He survived by clinging to a barrel in the mud. A friend clung to something else.

“I asked him, ‘Brother, is that a tree log?’ He didn’t say a word. He just shook his head… It was a body.”

The coronavirus outbreak has forced migrant workers to return home to Myanmar from other countries in the region, and some have gone to the mines. Nhkum Seng Naw, 22, was one of at least 70,000 people who came back from Thailand.

“Working in the mines is a game of life or death,” he said. He went to Hpakant “because it is where the dream lies”. His own dream, he said, was simply to care for his mother and build a good home for his siblings: “So far, it has not come true.”

While no one knows just how many migrants have been driven to Hpakant by the pandemic, Dashi La Seng, Kachin State Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation Minister told Reuters by phone the virus was clearly a factor.

“COVID-19 is one of the reasons many people arrived,” he said. Myanmar’s monsoon, which runs from May until October, was always “high season” because the companies finished work but left mounds of waste for the pickers. Mining companies now planned increased security to keep pickers out, he said.

“Most grassroots people all over Myanmar come to Hpakant, hoping they will be able to solve their livelihood problems,” he said, “Since they are citizens, it’s practically impossible to kick them out.”

Between 300 and 500 pickers have died in landslides and other accidents since 2015, said Maw Htun Aung, a Myanmar-based mining expert and former country manager of the Natural Resource Governance Institute.

While the government had taken some measures, including suspending the issuance of new licenses to mining companies, the sector needed a “fundamental rethink”, he said.

Authorities had not implemented recommendations of a plan by an Australian mining company commissioned in 2016 by the state-owned Myanmar Gems Enterprise, which included advice on how to prevent landslides, he said.

A commission formed to probe last week’s disaster drew public ire after the head of the body, Minister for Environment and Natural Resources Ohn Win, blamed the greed of the pickers.

The government should not blame the victims, said Hanna Hindstrom, Senior Myanmar Campaigner at Global Witness.

“The accident should serve as wake-up call for the government about the urgent need to clean up the lawless sector and finally sever the link between jade mining, corruption and conflict.”

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