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Sun 25 October 2020
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Steve Shaw reports on new revelations which reveal the extent to which Myanmar’s military is working against the country’s citizens – all under the blind eye of Aung San Suu Kyi

Hundreds of people were killed in a landslide when soldiers linked to atrocities against Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnic group did not seal off an unstable mine in order to make a profit, research has revealed.

The tragedy, regarded as one of the worst mining disasters in the country’s history, unfolded on 2 July when residents of the northern town of Hpakant watched in horror as more than 300 jade pickers were swept to their deaths in a landslide. Many were buried alive.

In the fall-out, the Union Minister for Natural Resources and Environment, Ohn Win, said it was the “greed” of the victims that had gotten them killed because they were at the Gwihka Mine, in Kachin State, despite it being closed down a week earlier. Myanmar’s leader, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, put the blame on joblessness, claiming that was the reason people were working at the mine “illegally”.

Few looked to the military, despite it having links to the jade mining industry going back decades.

It has now emerged that, when the mine was closed on 25 June due to the start of the rainy season, soldiers tasked with guarding the entrance walked away. This left it open for almost anyone, including the hundreds of victims of 2 July, to freely forage for jade left behind by mining firms.

However, locals told the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT) that the soldiers did not abandon the area entirely. Instead, they took up positions along the perimeter to keep a distant eye on any lucky finds and ensure they got a cut of the profits. 

Generally, when a jade picker finds a piece of the mineral – usually cut from jade nuggets found in mining debris – they are expected to take it to a local dealer who will assess the value and pay for the stone. The picker gets a small cut of the money, according to KWAT, but the rest is “mostly shared between the scavenger’s boss, the company operating the mining site and the military”. This has created a system whereby the army profits when those lives are put at risk in unstable mines.

In the case of the Gwihka Mine, the soldiers that did not seal off the entrance belonged to an infantry division operating in the area known as Division 33. It transferred to Hpakant in 2018 just months after spearheading mass-atrocities in the western region of Rakhine State which forced 700,000 Rohingya Muslims out of the country and killed almost 25,000. 

An investigation by Reuters called the division the ‘shock troopers’ of the ethnic cleansing campaign and identified a series of Facebook posts from soldiers posted during the crackdown. One was from the division’s Lieutenant Kyi Nyan Lynn who wrote to his friends “if they’re Bengali” – the term often used to refer to the Rohingya – “they’ll be killed”.

Aung San Suu Kyi put the blame on joblessness, claiming that was the reason people were working at the mine ‘illegally’

A police officer in the region also told reporters that he was forced to work with the soldiers and witnessed them torching entire villages. He said: “We’d go to a village and burn it down. The next day we’d go to another village. And in the evening, we’d go to another village.”

Further evidence collected by Amnesty International claimed that Division 33 has been linked to a “targeted campaign of widespread and systematic murder, rape and burning”. The NGO’s crisis response director, Tirana Hassan, labelled it an “orchestrated campaign” and alleged the soldiers “brutally meted out revenge on the entire Rohingya population of northern Rakhine State, in an apparent attempt to permanently drive them out of the country”.

Further deepening the military’s involvement in the 2 July disaster is the three companies that were operating at the site in the weeks before the mine’s closure.

On 3 June, they were warned of cracks emerging at the northern edge, indicating that it was becoming highly unstable but locals said that the warnings were ignored and all three continued their work up until 25 June. This included large excavations and the use of dynamite.

Among those companies was Yadana Kye, a firm directly associated with the Army. An official list of mining permits dating back to 2018 and obtained by KWAT shows that the company only had a permit to mine the site up until 11 June, two weeks before it actually stopped.

The company’s presence and the crack in the mine was later verified on the website of the Burma Army Commander in Chief. A statement said that “a terrible landslide happened from the place with an earthen crack about 500 feet high at the mining site of Yadana Kyei Company” and that “loose soil fell into the lake in the block of the suspended company, causing waves which hit traditional jade miners”.

In the wake of the disaster, the Government has established a panel to investigate but, again, the military has been given a key position through the appointment of Home Affairs Minister Lieutenant General Soe Htut.

Campaign group Global Witness said “it is possible” that Htut “has substantial holdings” in Myanma Economic Holdings Public Company Limited (MEHL) – which maintains ownership stakes in some of the most profitable businesses in the country, including jade mining. However, the company has not disclosed any details of who owns it. A Global Witness report added: “With the military’s extensive interests in the jade-mining industry, this already is an institutional conflict of interest, it may be a personal one as well.”

As investigations into the Rakhine State atrocities continue to play out in The Hague, Division 33 remains in charge of security in Hpakant.


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