Every year, as the monsoons deluge northern Myanmar, the jade mountains turn into a cemetery.
On Saturday afternoon, Thein Maung was perched on a steep hill of rubble from a jade mine when a landslide engulfed him, he said. He managed to claw his way out, but dozens of others are believed to have been killed, including his brother and a close friend.
Thein Maung, 23, said he knows how dangerous his work is. But for the hundreds of thousands of freelance jade miners who have flocked to the war-torn, drug-infested hills of Hpakant township in Kachin state, in Myanmar’s north, the calculation is simple.
“I know it’s very risky,” Thein Maung said, his voice shaking while discussing the landslide. “Risky is better than dying of hunger.”
Heavy rain in Hpakant meant that the search for survivors had to be suspended after only three hours Saturday. Officially, 18 people died in the latest landslide with 45 others injured. But survivors and local politicians said they believe that at least 100 people were interred in the torrent of muddy earth.
Nearly all jade miners in Hpakant are unregistered laborers living in tarpaulin shelters, making it almost impossible to gauge how many people are working at each site each day, much less determine an accurate death count.
The once-green hills of Hpakant, now a denuded lunar landscape, are among the world’s deadliest places. This year, nearly 80 people have been killed by three major landslides, according to official statistics that doubtless underestimate the true toll.
In June, July and August — when the brunt of the monsoons hit — the earth proves particularly deadly. “When it’s raining, at least 10 people die every day from landslides in Hpakant,” said Kyaw Swar Aung, an administrator of Hpakant township.
Most of the casualties are wildcat miners who scramble up precipitous slopes of waste from large jade mine operations. Climbing these hills of discarded tailings is illegal, but safety checks are rare.
If they are lucky, the jade pickers, as they are known, can unearth a chunk of jadeite that can make their fortune. If they are unlucky, they are buried alive.
Myanmar’s jade mines, which are the sole source of the most prized form of the stone, are extraordinarily lucrative. A 2015 report by Global Witness, an international natural resource watchdog, estimated that the jadeite business made up nearly half of Myanmar’s gross domestic product the year before.
The bulk of the money, however, never trickles into the hands of freelance jade miners. Instead, Myanmar’s military, which controls some of the country’s largest conglomerates, monopolizes the profits. Other companies owned by military cronies take a portion of the revenues. So do firms run by warlords from ethnic minority groups that populate northern Myanmar and that have long fought for autonomy.
“The trade is controlled by the military elites, U.S.-sanctioned drug lords and crony companies that the country’s rebranded government says it is consigning to the past,” the Global Witness report said. “These networks cream off vast profits while local people suffer terrible abuses and see their natural inheritance ripped out from beneath their feet.”
The site where Saturday’s accident occurred is owned by a company associated with U Ohn Myint, a retired general and former Cabinet minister, according to local officials.
The National League for Democracy, which now shares power with the military that governed Myanmar for nearly half a century, vowed to regulate the jade industry when it assumed some government posts in 2016. But even though licenses for some major mines have expired, the business of tearing into Hpakant’s earth — and the resulting deaths — has continued.
“The place is very big and rule of law doesn’t work here,” said U Tin Soe, a National League for Democracy parliamentarian representing Hpakant.
Decades of ethnic warfare in Myanmar’s northern borderlands have been exacerbated by a fight for natural resources, ranging from jade and timber to gold and hydropower. A cease-fire between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army, the main ethnic guerrilla force in Kachin state, fell apart in 2011. Both sides tax jade to fill their war chests.
“Jade mining fuels ethnic conflict in Kachin because there are many interests involved,” Tin Soe said. This month the National League for Democracy held the latest in a series of summits aimed at bringing peace to Myanmar’s ethnic frontiers, where several armed groups are battling a state that has for decades repressed them.
But the conference, which had been delayed several times, failed to make much headway. In his opening speech, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s military chief, said that “the sound of guns will become silent” only if ethnic armed groups “control their own men.”
Min Aung Hlaing characterized the Tatmadaw, as Myanmar’s military is known, as a multiethnic force, even though nearly all top brass are from the nation’s Bamar ethnic majority.
“Our Tatmadaw, being a people’s Tatmadaw born of ethnic people, is an organization representing the state and people,” he said.
Many freelance jade miners, like Thein Maung, are ethnic Rakhine Buddhists from far-western Rakhine state, the site of ethnic violence against the Rohingya Muslim minority. While ethnic Rakhine have been implicated in massacres of Rohingya, they are also among Myanmar’s poorest populations.
Economic desperation has led them to Hpakant, where drug addiction, HIV and malaria afflict wildcat miners. Thein Maung escaped Saturday’s landslide with only a small injury. The earth, though, claimed other victims.
“I wish to see my brother and my friend alive,” he said. “But I know there is no hope.”