This article was supported by the Pulitzer Center.
Bo Kyaw Thant had been searching for jade for fifteen minutes when the wave came.
“The water started falling, and within a second, it engulfed the whole area,” he recalled. “It pulled me down, and I thought I was going to die.”
As he clung to a rock, his thoughts turned to who would look after his parents, he told VICE News two weeks later from his tarpaulin shelter in Hpakant, in Myanmar’s Kachin State, where his parents are now looking after him.
When the water receded, Bo Kyaw Thant faced a grim landscape. Bodies lay strewn in mud, naked save their boots. In all, 174 bodies were found; 20 more remain missing.
The July 2 landslide that swept up Bo Kyaw Thant was the deadliest in living memory, but it was an all-too-familiar occurrence for those searching for a way out of poverty in the world’s largest jade mines.
Research by the environmental watchdog Global Witness published in 2015 described Myanmar’s jade industry as likely the biggest natural resource heist in modern history, and estimated that the industry generated up to $31 billion in 2014.
Most stones are smuggled to China. Weakly enforced regulations, and an opaque licensing system that favors powerful elites, allow those at the top—including military generals, their cronies, and armed groups—to rake in massive wealth with “rock bottom” accountability, according to Global Witness.
Bo Kyaw Thant, a 21-year-old freelance miner, sits in his house. He survived the July 2 landslide in Gwi Hka mine in Hpakant, Kachin State, Myanmar. Photo: Hkun Lat
Meanwhile, the recent deaths—and the uncountable ones that preceded them—have left communities and advocates wondering if policymakers see the freelance miners toiling at the bottom rungs of the industry as being as disposable as the waste through which they sift. The miners’ nickname is telling. Like the gray, discarded stones on which they gamble their lives, they are known as yemase —“unwashed.”
VICE News spoke with fifteen people, including yemase, small-level traders, and civil society workers, as well as those close to landslide victims. All of them expressed little expectation of meaningful change in the industry.
Nonetheless, they said, those risking their lives will likely continue to do so.
“We [yemase] know it is dangerous, but we do it because we have to,” explained Gum Jat, 31, who came to Hpakant in 2012 from Lashi Yang village in Kachin state. “There is no other job we have learned to do systematically or skillfully.”
An estimated 300,000 yemase search for jade in Hpakant, where deadly landslides occur so frequently that they often fail to make the news. Although freelance jade mining is illegal, companies typically permit the practice during designated hours, but require that yemase give them stones above a certain size.
Companies regularly vacate sites without filling in mining pits or safely disposing of waste, leaving the mines on the precipice of disaster, especially during the rainy season, when open pits turn to lakes and steep cliffs can collapse in an instant.
Just a week before the deadly landslide earlier this month, the government had announced the three-month closure of all jade mines in the area. But in an industry in which freelance jade mining is in itself illegal, the order did little to deter those who have no other source of income, many of whom are still continuing to mine.
As in years past, the landslide prompted calls for policy change and demands that the government take responsibility for the conditions that led to the deaths. In a July 2 press release, Global Witness called the latest deaths “a damning indictment of the government’s failure to curb reckless and irresponsible mining practices.”
Authorities have taken punitive actions against three freelance jade traders for enabling miners to search for jade, and against two military officers for failing to keep miners out of the area. The government has also offered financial compensation to victims’ families. Yet no acknowledgment of responsibility, or plans for reform, have come.
Instead, State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi highlighted on a Facebook Live broadcast the lack of alternative livelihood options driving freelance miners to break the law, while during a visit to Hpakant, the chair of an investigation committee said the victims “died for their greed.”
Freelance miners on their way to search for jade in Hpakant, Kachin State, Myanmar on July 14, 2020. Photo: Hkun Lat
For Bo Kyaw Thant, those words come as little solace. The 21-year-old had travelled some 1,300 kilometers from his native Rakhine State just over a year ago to join his parents, who also work in the industry. He had hoped to use his earnings to continue his education.
Yemase and small-level traders interviewed by VICE News commonly referred to the jade industry as a gamble. The price of stones is negotiated between buyer and seller, while a chain of middlemen lies between yemase and the ultimate buyers, leaving ample room for them to be cheated on the stones they do manage to find. Despite being aware that the odds are almost impossibly stacked against them, it does not stop them from trying.
“There are successful times, but more often, times of failure,” Gum Jat, the yemase from Lashi Yang village, told VICE News.
His family, once farmers, are now among more than 100,000 Kachin living in camps for those displaced by armed conflict ever since the 2011 collapse of a ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organization and the Myanmar military. Both sides seek control over natural resources, including jade, which has helped fuel the conflict.
Company trucks operating at a government-licensed jade mining site in Hpakant, Kachin State, Myanmar on May 17, 2019. Photo: Hkun Lat
The oldest of seven children, Gum Jat came to Hpakant after dropping out of high school when his family hit hard times. His parents suggested he try his hand at mining jade, and after Gum Jat agreed, his father dropped him at a bus station with instructions to seek accommodation at a local church.
Gum Jat gradually stowed away his earnings, and in 2016, purchased a small house. He is now saving up to start a small business as a trader.
In spite of the risks, Gum Jat said he plans to carry on in the industry in hopes that it can bring him out of poverty and enable him to support his family, church, and community.
“We [yemase] have only worked this way for a long time, and even one stone can change our lives,” he told VICE.
For Awng Li, 24, the day of his death was one of his first times searching for jade.
As is common in Kachin, his parents lived and worked in Hpakant while he was raised by his grandmother in the state capital, Myitkyina. His grandmother, Bawk Jan, said that in years past, he had warned his friends not to mine during the rainy season due to the risks.
Before he left for the mines in February, Bawk Jan had tried to convince him to work in a phone or motorcycle repair shop instead, but he was insistent, citing his lifelong dream of saving up to build her a house.
“He went there with the hope that where God’s blessing was hidden, he might get something,” she said.
La-Ung Bawk Jan, 73, shows photos of her son-in-law, Nhkum La Di, and her grandson, Nhkum Awng Li, in her home in Myitkyina, Kachin State, Myanmar. Photo: Hkun Lat
Upon arriving in Hpakant, he taught guitar to church youth and prepared meals for freelance miners as a church volunteer, while searching for jade at the nearby mine two or three days a week.
On the morning of July 2, Bawk Jan received a call from Awng Li’s mother, who said he was not answering his phone. Hours later, his body was recovered, along with that of Bawk Jan’s son-in-law, also a freelance miner.
“Awng Li was my first grandson, and I had so much hope for him,” she told VICE News. “Since he has gone, this house has become very quiet.”
She donated his guitar to his church, where the youth are planning to sing in his memory.
She said she was saddened to hear the investigation committee chair blame the landslide victims for their greed.
“People went there because they needed it,” she said, noting that it was often the poorest miners who braved the risks of the rainy season. Enabling this system to perpetuate itself, she added, is “like a way of making people die.”
She hopes to see the government take steps to prevent future tragedies, and establish a more equitable industry in which miners can earn a decent livelihood. “Everyone wants to have good lives, and goes there with that hope… to settle their struggles and difficulties.”
Correction: This story originally contained an incorrect photo caption. The photo did not depict miners cleaning stones, but rather miners on their way to work. We regret the error.