By Robin Gomes
The tragedy occurred on Thursday in a jade mine in Hpakant area in northern Myanmar, when a huge mass of mining residue collapsed down a slope into a lake, triggering massive waves of mud and water, which swallowed up the poor people scavenging for stones amid the loose earth.
Landslide of injustice
“Our hearts are shattered by the horrific news about the death of … our young men in the jade mine tragedy,” Myanmar Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon wrote in a condolence message on Saturday to Bishop Francis Daw Tang of Myitkyina, the capital of Kachin state, where the accident occurred.
“Those who died were not only buried under a landslide of the mountain but by the landslide of injustice,” wrote the cardinal who is President of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC).
Speaking on behalf of the continent’s bishops, he recalled Pope Francis who “raised his voice against the never-ending tsunami of economic and environmental injustice against the poor all over the world”.
Greed, negligence, arrogance of the rich
“Those who perished,” the cardinal said, “were sacrificed on the altar of greed, by utter negligence and arrogance of companies that continue to dehumanize the poor of this land.”
Tragedies at Myanmar’s jade mining sites are not rare. More than 100 people were reported killed at various mining sites last year. A November 2015 accident in Kachin also left 113 dead and was considered the country’s worst. However, the June 2 landslide has been the worst so far.
The victims are normally poor migrants and workers who sift for bits of jade in huge mounds of excavated earth discarded by heavy mining machinery. These scavengers usually work and live at the base of these mounds, which become particularly unstable during the rainy season.
Myanmar supplies 90% of the world’s jade, the vast majority of which is exported to neighbouring China, which borders Kachin state. The state’s remote Hpakant area is the centre of the world’s biggest and most lucrative jade mining industry.
According to Global Witness, a London-based group that investigates misuse of revenues from natural resources, Myanmar’s jade industry generated about $31 billion in 2014, with most of the profit shared between individuals and companies tied to the country’s former military rulers.
“Crumbs of jade” satisfying the “fire of hunger”
While praying for the families of victims, Cardinal Bo pointed out that “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”.
Noting that millions of his countrymen have lost their livelihood to the pandemic, he said Thursday’s tragedy is a “grim reminder of the need for sharing God-given natural treasures”. “The treasures of Myanmar belong to the people of Myanmar”.
The FABC president warned that “if the relevant stakeholders do not respond with compassion and justice, this will not be the last time of this inhuman tragedy”.
Myanmar leader Aung San Suu Kyi on Friday expressed her condolence over the tragedy, blaming it on joblessness. She said the victims were illegal miners, noting the difficulty of the people to get legal jobs and the priority of the country to create jobs.
United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres also expressed his sadness and sent his condolences to the bereaved families. Guterres expressed “the readiness of the United Nations to contribute to ongoing efforts to address the needs of the affected population,” said his spokesman, Stephane Dujarric.
Global Witness called the June 2 landslide “a damning indictment of the government’s failure to curb reckless and irresponsible mining practices.” Myanmar’s jade mining sector, it said, “is dominated by powerful military-linked companies, armed groups and cronies that have been allowed to operate without effective social and environmental controls for years.”