Jade-rich Tatmadaw general to investigate deadly Hpakant mine disaster

The president’s office has named a military general with large jade investments to a committee investigating a massive landslide that killed more than 170 people at a Kachin state jade mine last week. 

Myanmar’s multibillion-dollar, largely unregulated jade industry is the world’s largest, with much of it controlled by military-owned businesses. Rights groups have long railed against corruption, human rights violations and unsafe working conditions, and outside observers have repeatedly cited the role of military-owned businesses as the largest impediment to reform. 

Lieutenant general Soe Htut, the military-appointed minister of home affairs, is one of the largest single shareholders of Myanma Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), a vast military conglomerate with more jade licenses than any other company in the country – all of them in Kachin state. 

The six-person committee he’s been appointed to is charged with identifying the responsible parties and deciding what reforms might prevent similar disasters in the future. It is being led by environmental minister Ohn Win.

“It’s farcical for the government to include an MEHL shareholder on a commission into last week’s disaster,” said Hanna Hindstrom, senior campaign manager for the London-based environment and human rights monitor Global Witness. “Military-owned and connected companies are among the largest obstacles to implementing reforms in the jade sector, as well as the peace process more broadly,.” 

The lucrative trade has also fueled and financed decades of conflict between the military and the ethnic groups indigenous to the country’s gemstone-rich borderlands. 

The Wai Khar mine, where monsoon rains pooled before collapsing one wall and killing at least 172 people Thursday morning, does not appear to be affiliated with MEHL or the military. 

Still, experts say, Soe Htut’s role on the commission presents a serious conflict of interest. 

Chris Sidoti, an international law expert who served on a UN fact-finding mission investigating the military’s business ties last year, said it’s essential for these sort of investigative committees to be free from interested parties.

“The military is an interested party and so there’s a very clear conflict,” he told Myanmar Now. “An MEHL connection makes it even more compromised. That’s the bottom line, end of story!”

A military spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. 

The activist group Justice for Myanmar also condemned Soe Htut’s appointment to the committee in a statement Sunday morning. It demanded all members disclose information about their private assets and step down if they have any industry tries. 

Representatives from MEHL and the president’s office could not be reached by Tuesday evening.  

‘More lives will be lost’

Aung San Suu Kyi’s ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party won in landslide elections in 2015 in part on promises to reform the industry, though little has changed so far. 

US President Barack Obama has been widely criticised by rights groups for lifting long-standing sanctions on the industry in 2016, after Suu Kyi had transitioned into power – the country’s first civilian leader in more than 50 years – but before any concrete reform had taken place.

The Myanmar Imperial Jade Company, an MEHL subsidiary, was awarded 361 licenses in the first two months of 2016, right before the NLD took power. It holds 397 jade licenses in total – more than any other company in the country, according to a 2018 report from the Myanmar Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative (EITI). Several are in Hpakant, where the Wai Khar mine is.

Moe Moe Htun, a civil society representative to EITI, said ad-hoc responses to these disasters after they occur will never end what has become an annual occurrence. 

“No matter how many by-laws or policies are legislated, there will be no solution if these are not enforced,” she told Myanmar Now.

A new gemstone law was passed in 2019, but it was widely criticised as ineffectual and written in service to investors at the expense of workers and the environment. It has yet to go into effect.

“Myanmar’s leaders have demonstrated an endemic lack of political will to confront some of the most powerful military-linked … companies responsible for social and environmental destruction in Hpakant,” said Hindstrom. “This was true during the military era and unfortunately remains the case under the civilian administration today.” 

The Myanmar National Human Rights Commission (MNHRC) on Friday said it “defies understanding” that mining companies “have not bothered to carry out human rights due diligence and the necessary risk assessment” despite making billions of dollars a year. 

Thursday’s disaster was the deadliest the industry has seen in at least five years.  

The jade mine was officially closed for the rainy season but migrants from across the country still regularly scavenge for the precious stones there.

On Monday the military said it had punished colonel Nay Lin Htun, the Kachin state border and security affairs minister, and an unnamed military commander for failing to report unauthorized miners in the closed area. 

“These are restricted and prohibited areas. They had a security duty to examine the area and report any violations,” brigadier general Zaw Min Tun, a military spokesperson, told Myanmar Now.

He said colonel Nay Lin Htun has been removed from his post. He had been there since 2018. 

According to Myanmar’s fire service, the Wai Khar mine is owned by a conglomerate of five local companies: Yadanar Kywae, Kyuak Myat Shwe Kyi, Yadanar San Shwan, Ayeyar Yadanar and Thit Thone Lone.

“This was an entirely preventable tragedy that should serve as an urgent wake-up call for the government,” said Paul Donowitz, Global Witness campaign leader. 

“The longer the government waits to introduce rigorous reforms of the jade sector, the more lives will be lost.”

Additional reporting by Hay Man Pyae

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