Burma: Mining threats continuePublished by MAC on 2014-02-07
Source: The Irrawaddy, Democratic Voice of Burma (2014-02-27)
In Tenasserim Hills, rise in mining threatens communities
Paul Vrieze and Htet Naing ZawThe Irrawaddy
5 February 2014
Tenasserim Hills, Dawei District - Soe Aung used to be a farmer, growing rice, betel nut and coconut on a 5-acre plot of fertile land located along a stream flowing from the lush mountains around Myaung Pyo village.
These days he is a day laborer, and his land, along with the stream that ran past it, has disappeared, covered under a layer of reddish-yellow mud.
"Before I had land, but it's been ruined by flooding from the mine," said Soe Aung, 49, looking haggard. "Now I've become poor, my family is so troubled by this situation. I can only try to work as a laborer in the area to get some money."
He recalled how wastewater from the Heinda tin mine, located on a mountaintop about 2 kilometers away, was released from a reservoir during the past few rainy seasons, flooding Myaung Pyo village without warning, contaminating local wells and gradually covering all farmland to the east of the village with mud.
"Many farmers here lost their land, about 30 farmers in total," adds his brother, Soe Naing, 48, whose farmland was also destroyed. "I cannot afford to send my children to school anymore."
Now, the expanding mud plain, about a kilometer wide, has reached the edge of this village, located in Dawei District in a valley in the Tenasserim Hills in the eponymous division in southern Burma. The Thai company that owns the mine, Myanmar Pongpipat Company Ltd, has erected a small earthen wall to protect local homes.
The continuous runoff from the mine, however, seeps through the wall, and the ethnic Dawei villagers have dug a network of small trenches to channel putrid, black waste water around their bamboo and thatched-r oof homes.
The roughly 150 impoverished families have received some support from the Dawei Development Association (DDA), a local community rights NGO that has dug several wells in the village, but they are despondent about the future. "Before this village was prosperous, but now most youths have gone to Thailand to work," said Soe Aung.
Myaung Pyo is the worst affected of about 10 villages that suffer from the environmental impacts of the tin-ore mining operations, located about 25 km east of Dawei town.
The Tenasserim range, running north-south along the Burma-Thai border, is rich in mineral wealth, and tin and tungsten deposits have been mined at Heinda and other sites from British colonial times. Since Burma began opening up under a reformist government in 2011, dozens of mining firms have shown an interest in exploring the region and mining activities have increased, as have local fears over the projects' environmental impacts.
Thailand's Myanmar Pongpipat Company took over the Heinda mine after signing a production-sharing contract with the state-owned Mining Enterprise 2 in 1999, when Burma was under military rule. The Thai firm reportedly holds rights to 65 percent of produced tin and tungsten, which is transported to nearby Thailand for processing.
From Myaung Pyo village, a 30-minute drive across jungle-covered slopes leads to the Heinda mine, a vast wasteland that runs about a kilometer across, cut out of the side of a mountaintop. At the site, which offers sweeping views of the verdant Tenasserim Hills, excavators scoop up gravel and load it into a dozen trucks that drive up and down the red moonscape.
The vehicles dump the alluvium down mountainsides, where workers operate high-pressure jets of water that turn it into slurry, which then passes through plants that separate the heavy tin and tungsten from lighter minerals and sand.
Massive volu mes of muddy wastewater are continuously pumped out of the plants and down mountain slopes into streams. These tributaries of the Tenasserim River are swollen with yellow wastewater and frequently flood villages below the mine, dumping a layer of mud on the farmland. The streams have become lifeless due to a lack of oxygen, and their waters are now unfit for human consumption or irrigation.
A Thai manager of Myanmar Pongpipat Company at the mine's office refused to talk to Irrawaddy reporters and waved away questions about the mine's environmental and social impacts.
About 500 laborers are said to be employed at the mine, and some reportedly suffer from respiratory and skin disease as a result of poor working conditions, but reporters were barred from talking to workers.
On the other side of mountain, at the ethnic Karen village of Lower Heinda, residents also suffer from the mine's environmental impacts. Large tracts of farmland have b een flooded by the mine's continuous runoff and a huge waste water reservoir that the company built next to the village.
"We are worried the dam is not high enough and that in the rainy season it could flood, as our village lies much lower" than the reservoir, said Ngwe Soe, 39, adding that the runoff has also contaminated local water sources.
"The water quality is very poor here," he said, adding that several villagers had developed illnesses due to water pollution. "I became sick. I went to Yangon to get medical treatment for kidney problems. The treatment and travel expense cost me 300,000 kyats [US$300]."
The environmental impact has worsened in recent years after Myanmar Pongpipat Company drastically increased production, according to Ngwe Soe. "This mine has been here a long time, but since four years the Thai company has created a lot of problems," he said.
The firm, local authorities and the Karen National Union (KN U)-an ethnic rebel group that controls the mountain territory around the mine-have ignored the villagers' demands to end the pollution and offer compensation for loss of land, he said. "The company has power, they know the government, so we cannot complain," Ngwe Soe added.
Zaw Thura, a local activist with DDA and a Dawei University scholar, said the communities repeatedly protested to local authorities and the KNU, but to no avail. Myanmar Pongpipat, he alleged, "pay off both sides; they are businessmen they know what to do."
Some villagers, however, have managed to eke a living out of the waste water dumped in their backyard. About 20 people living directly below the mine have set up sluice boxes through which they channel waste water. From it they collect several kilograms of fine black sand containing tin ore.
In a scene reminiscent of the famous 19th and 20th century US gold rushes, they stir the collected material in water in a fu nnel-shaped pan and wash sand and mud over the side, leaving the heavier tin particles behind.
The repetitive, painstaking work has proven to be a boon for a few enterprising villagers. "Before I used to grow betel nut, but now I do this work for my daily income," said Myo Ko, 25, adding that he can earn up to $200 per month from collecting tin and tungsten. "We sell it to the Thai mining company."
Mining Firms Eager to Explore Uncharted Hills
Khin Maung Aye, president of the Tenasserim Division Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said Burmese, Thai, Chinese and other foreign mining firms are keen to explore the largely uncharted Tenasserim Hills for mineral wealth, adding that "many companies" have applied for government licenses in the past few years.
"At least 55 companies are trying to get a permit... Mostly in Dawei District and mostly for tin production," he said. "They are waiting for a decision from [the government in] Naypyidaw." He added that 10 firms are currently licensed to mine or explore for ores in the region, up from six companies a few years ago.
Indonesian state-owned mining giant PT Timah told media Wednesday that it expected to begin exploration of a 10,000-hectare mining concession in Tenasserim Division in June and mining operations in early 2015. The firm, which did not specify the location, said it expected to unearth 10,000 tons of tin and would build a $12 million smelter to process ores in Burma.
President Thein Sein's government has said it is eager to attract foreign direct investment to Burma's mining industry, but a lack of progress on reforming the 1994 Mining Law and long processing times for mining license applications have reportedly dimmed investors' enthusiasm. An overhaul of the legislation is expected this year and is likely to bring many more mining firms to Burma, including to the Tenasserim Hills in Dawei and Mergui districts.
Burma's southernmost region was long an isolated backwater, located far from Rangoon and cut off from nearby Thailand because of a KNU-insurgency in the densely forested hills. But a 2012 KNU-government ceasefire, planned construction of the Dawei Special Economic Zone and new transport links to the Thai border, located about 130 km east of Dawei town, are quickly improving access to the area.
"Now, many many mining companies are trying to get permission to search for tin, tungsten, lead, coal and gold-especially for gold along the Tenasserim River," said Zaw Thura, the activist. "Nobody knows how much [mineral wealth] there is because the last 50 years this was an insurgency area."
He warns that due to poor implementation of Burma's mining and environmental laws, local communities stand to lose rather than gain from these developments, as they are likely to experience only the negative social and environmental impacts. "We are really wor ried about the impacts, but we can't stop them because we have no money and power. We have only people," he said.
Khin Maung Aye, of the Tenasserim Division Chamber of Commerce and Industry, shared these concerns, saying, "Most [mining] companies working in our region don't care about social responsibility, they only care about production. That's why there are many problems."
Zaw Thura said KNU insurgents also welcomed mining projects into their areas of control, despite the impacts on the impoverished Karen communities who live in the Tenasserim Hills.
In a remote, forested area in southern Dawei District, controlled by the KNU's Karen National Liberation Army Brigade 4, Thailand's East Star Company and local firm Mayflower have been allowed since 2011 to operate a coal mining concession. The operations have reportedly angered local Karen communities, who complain the firms are polluting their water sources and damaging farmland.
"It's just the exploration phase, but they are already digging everywhere," said Zaw Thura, adding that a road was cut through the dense forest so that East Star could transport coal deposits to Thailand. "East Star Mining, they neglect everything. We [DDA] complained to the company and the KNU many times, but still they don't want to talk," he said.
Officials from the Tenasserim Division government and the Ministry of Mines could not be reached for comment.
Eight detained as opposition to Burma's Letpadaung Copper Mine continues
5 February 2014
Eight people were detained temporarily Wednesday while protesting against the controversial Letpadaung copper mining project in central Burma's Sagaing Division, according to locals.
Some 7,800 acres of land in Sarlingyi Township has been confiscated for the project, which has been dogged by protests over poor compensation and environmental safeguards.
Work only restarted late last year after the government suspended work in November 2012 amid widespread opposition. The government has renegotiated the terms of the project and tried to address locals' complaints about the joint venture between the Burmese military owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (UMEHL) and Chinese firm Wanbao.
But demonstrations have continued this week, with locals saying that a fence being built near the copper mine is encroaching on land that had so far not been seized for use by the project, and for which no compensation has been paid.
According to family members, well known protester Thwae Thwae Win, from Wat Hmae village, and seven other people were detained Wednesday morning when they laid in front of bulldozers to prevent them from working on the fence.
"They were dragged away by policewomen, and currently are detained in police vehicles that are parked by the fencing area," Zaw Win, a resident of Wat Hmae village, told The Irrawaddy on Wednesday afternoon.
Thwae Thwae Win said she was released at 6:30 pm Wednesday without charge. The police held the three men and five women all day to break the protest up, she said, adding that she would not stop demonstrating against the project.
People from more than 26 villages surrounding the massive mine are still protesting against the project, and new concerns continue to arise about its environmental impact.
Kan Gone village is just a few kilometers fr om a factory used to purify copper for the mining project. Locals and environmentalists say that since the factory was built in 2007, sulphuric acid coming from the plant has affected crops, soil, water and the air, and even led to high death rates in the village.
Since mid-January, a strong smell has permeated the area, said Aung Soe, a resident of Kan Gone village.
"Most of our crops are being destroyed. The air smells like rotten egg or burning feathers, especially during night time. Children and elders can't sleep well because of those terrible smells," Aung Soe said.
Locals say the factory is still working, despite a parliamentary committee-led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi-recommending that the factory stop operating until environmental concerns were addressed.
Locals have complained to local authorities, including Col Kyi Naing, the Sagaing minister for borders and security, but say they have received no firm guarantees.
"Col Kyi Naing just said he and the responsible authorities will send our complaints to their superiors to handle this problem. We don't know how long it will take. We just don't want the responsible people to take too much time on this matter which is threatening many lives," said Aung Soe.
In November 2013, a soil test was conducted by Rangoon-based NGO Advancing Life and Regenerating Motherland (ALARM). According to the group's environmentalists, the amount of sulphate dissolved in soil samples was five times the acceptable level.
Win Myo Thu, an environmentalist with ALARM, said the air pollution was worsening due to the changing of temperature in the region and needs urgent attention from those responsible.
"If this problem is being neglected, the health problems such as respiratory problems, trachoma, eyes and skin disease will increase as pollution will worsened as the summer is drawing in with high temp eratures and less humidity," he said.
State-owned newspaper the New Light of Myanmar reported Wednesday that a meeting of experts and government officials in Naypyidaw is still reviewing the report of an investigation commission concerning the environmental impacts of the Latpadaung copper mine.
According to the newspaper, which did not give details about the report's contents, the Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) report on the project is almost finalized.
EITI to report on industry red flags
17 February 2014
An energy watchdog group set up to scrutinise the exploitation of Myanmar's natural resources has announced it will initially concentrate on the "most problematic and profitable" sectors - oil, natural gas and mines.
The multi-stakeholder group, an association of representatives from the government, resource extraction companies and civil society, was formed on February 8 to compile reports under the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, which seeks to apply international standards to the exploitation of natural resources.
The group's main role will be to publicise the income and tax payments of energy exploration firms operating in Myanmar, and report to the EITI, which Myanmar has applied to join. Reports will be published an d audited by international experts.
However, MSG member U Tun Myint Aung said the group will not have enough time to study all the industries concerned in time for the 18-month reporting deadline.
"There are many sectors like oil, gas, forest resources, water resources, hydropower and so on. It is a lot," he said.
In addition, EITI reports must cover 90 percent of the companies in the resource group.
"We are just starting this process and we are fairly sure we won't be able to manage all [extractive] sectors immediately," he said.
The group will examine government permits for resource exploration, total resource production, taxes and other income from production, the impact of production on the environment and how the government spends the income.
Deputy Minister for Finance U Maung Maung Thein will lead the multi-stakeholder group, with Deputy Minister for Energy U Myint Zaw as vice chair.
The 23-member committee also includes six other government officials, including the director generals from the ministries of finance, environmental conservation and forestry, mining, energy and home affairs, a director general from the Auditor General's Office and the managing director of the Myanma Oil and Gas Enterprise.
It features six members from the private sector, including representatives from Petronas, Total and MPRL, and nine from civil society, including members of the 88 Generation, Paung Ku, Seinyaungso, Shwe Gas Movement, Dawei Development Association and Eco-Dev.
Protesters arrested after appealing for Latpadaung activist's release
Democratic Voice of Burma
17 February 2014
Four Latpadaung villagers have been charged by police for protesting without permission following a demonstration in front of a local police station last week. The group was demanding the release of prominent Latpadaung activist Thaw Zin.
Thaw Zin, a former political prisoner, has made a name assisting local villagers as they resist the confiscation of land for the copper mine project. Thaw Zin was arrested by plain-clothed police on the morning of 11 February.
Salingyi police superintendent, Thaw Zaw, stated that Thaw Zin would be charged with disturbing public tranquillity and would appear in court soon. This will be added to two outstanding charges, one for allegedly threatening Wanbao company staff and another for trespassing. In that 2013, incident Thaw Zin had gathered local villagers to plough land on the mining site, demonstrating that the land still belonged to farmers.
Local villagers gathered in front of Nyaun gbingyi Police Station after hearing of the activist's arrest.
Four of the group were later charged with unlawful assembly under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law.
Nyaungbingyi police's Deputy-superintendent Soe Soe claimed that protesters were "unruly" and had used hostile words to the police.
"We tried to reason with them in a decent manner but they said damaging things to us," the official said.
"They did not seek official permission for the protest but we decided to let that go and told them to just disperse, but they didn't comply so we had to deal with them with legal action."
Thaw Zin was detained by six plain-clothed men assumed to be police last weekend as he walked between Tonywa and Shwehle villages in Salingyi Township where the controversial copper mine is located. Htay Yi, an activist who was with Thaw Zin at the time of his arrest, says she was assaulted in the incid ent.
Police rejected her allegation on the grounds that it did not qualify as an assault under the legal term as it was not premeditated.
Myint Aung, secretary of local anti-mining project campaign group Save the Latpadaung Hill Committee, condemned government and judicial authorities for their abuse of legal powers. He suggested that political and juridical discretion always falls in favour of the mine operators - military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH) and Wanbao Mining Company, a subsidiary of China's state arms manufacturer Norinco.
"The officials pretty much always dismiss cases filed by the public for the damages they suffer - it is very rare to accept them. But for lawsuits filed by the UMEH or other cronies, they'd accept them very easily and at times even volunteer to press charges against people on behalf of them," said Myint Aung.
Latpadaung locals air grievances to UN Rights Rapporteur
Democratic Voice of Burma
19 February 2014
United Nations' Special Rapporteur on human rights in Burma, Tomás Ojea Quintana, arrived in Monywa, Sagaing Division, on Monday to meet with villagers living near the controversial Latpadaung Copper Mine.
The area has seen several rounds of protest over the China-backed mining project, several of which turned violent and resulted in an investigation led by opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. While the investigation concluded that the project was fit to continue, locals have maintained opposition to the development on the grounds that they are losing their lands and suffering mistreatment at the hands of project operators.
Wet Hmey villager Thwe Thwe Win, well known across Burma as an anti-mine activist, was among invitees to the high-profile meeting, held in Monywa's Winyu Nadi Hotel.
"Locals at the meeting informed Quintana of human rights violations committed by the Wanbao Mining Company and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings - our children didn't get to study in 2011 and the village monastery was shut down and demolished late that year," she said.
"Moreover, the [project operators] have been abusing their authority and laying fences upon our farmland without negotiating with us."
Thwe Thwe Win said she showed the UN official a photo she took with Aung San Suu Kyi, chairperson of the Latpadaung Investigation Commission, when she came to town last year. She said that he expressed belief that Suu Kyi will not neglect the villagers.
Locals said the conference lasted about 30 minutes. Quintana also met with Sagaing Division government official s before heading back to Naypyidaw to conclude his ninth and final visit to Burma as Special Rapporteur.
Earlier on his tour, Quintana made stops in Arakan State, Kachin State and the Thilawa Special Economic Zone in Rangoon.
The Rapporteur is expected to publish his report on the human rights situation in Burma on 17 March.
From jade land to a wasteland
21 February 2014
"They eat up the hills like they're devouring cakes. Hills three or four hundred feet high are completely flattened, or even turned into holes 300 feet deep. Where there used to be mountains, now there are lakes," said U Cho, a resident of Hpakant, a town in Kachin State famed for its jade mines.
Like many others in the area, U Cho is a jade dealer. But even he struggles to comprehend the scale of the destruction wrought by the jade mines here.
"They use dynamite to blast away whole mountains. The mountains collapse just like the World Trade Center on 9/11. With modern technology, a mountain can be reduced to flat land within one month," he said.
Located about 220 miles (350 km) north of Mandalay, Myanmar's second-largest city, Hpakant is the source of the world's highest-quality jade. Surrounded by hills and mountains that produce jade and gold, the area is so rich in mineral wealth that residents say they used to be able to find jade even when they were building house foundations or digging wells.
But the extraction of the region's earth-bound riches has utterly transformed the landscape, leaving devastation in its wake. Around the villages of Lonekin, Ma Mot and Sai Taung, for instance, the mountains have been replaced wi th massive tailings piles, and effluent from a muddy artificial lake pollutes the U Ru stream that runs right through the heart of Hpakant town.
"In the past, you could see the rocks at the bottom of the U Ru stream, it was so clean. Now the water is murky and toxic because of the jade mining. It is dying," said U Maung Than, another Hpakant resident.
Mung Myit, another local jade merchant, also jumped into the conversation. "When we were young, our grandparents told us that the hill and mountains here were full of big trees," he said. "They even heard tigers at night, and the air was so cool that you had to use a blanket when you went to bed, even in the hot season."
The wages of peace
Although those days are long past, things didn't really begin to heat up in Hpakant until 20 years ago, when the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), an ethnic armed group, signed a ceasefire agreement with the then ruling military junta, opening up the region to large-scale exploitation.
Since then, at least 500 companies have registered to mine in Hpakant. In addition to a combined workforce in the hundreds of thousands, the new operators brought heavy machines with them to make the job of tearing down mountains that much easier.
One of the biggest players in this enormous enterprise is the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL), a military-run conglomerate that dominates many sectors of the country's economy. Some generals or their families are also believed to be privately involved; for instance, locals say that Daw Kyaing Kyaing, wife of ex-dictator Snr-Gen Than Shwe, has a company here. But Chinese businessmen, working though local proxy companies or in partnership with state-owned businesses, are widely seen as the ones in control of the jade trade.
That should come as no surprise: China has been importing jadeite, or hard jade, from Myanmar since the 13t h century. Today, about 90 percent of the world's jadeite is mined in the Hpakant area, and most of it is sold to China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. As a symbol of virtue and excellence, it was much in demand for use in products commemorating the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Despite its enormous value, however, only a fraction of the money spent on Myanmar's jade ever gets recorded. In September of last year, Reuters reported that the country produced more than 43 million kilograms of jade in the 2011/12 fiscal year, but generated only US$34 million through official exports-a far cry from the $8 billion that it was worth, according to a report by the Harvard Ash Center cited by Reuters.
Fueling the fire
Under the terms of the 1994 ceasefire agreement, the government and the KIO shared control of Hpakant equally-an arrangement that paved the way for a full-scale assault on the region's mineral wealth, but did little to lay the groundwork for a lasti ng peace.
At a time when many now engaged in peacemaking efforts are arguing that increased investment in ethnic minority areas will help to ease tensions, it is interesting to note that since 1988, an estimated 65 percent of all foreign direct investment (FDI) in Myanmar have been poured into three of the country's most conflict-ridden states. According to a report published by the Netherlands-based think tank Transnational Institute in February 2013, Kachin State ranked first, receiving $8.3 billion, or 25 percent, of the FDI in Myanmar over this 25-year period, followed by Rakhine State ($7.5 billion) and Shan State ($6.6 billion).
In the case of Kachin State, the impact of this investment has been largely detrimental, not only to the environment, but also to the prospects for a lasting peace.
"There are many reasons for going to war, and we can say that business interests are one of them," said Gen Gun Maw, deputy chief of staff of the KIO's armed wing, the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), explaining what led to the collapse of the Kachin ceasefire in June 2011.
Since fighting resumed in the state, the KIO has lost much of its influence in Hpakant, where large-scale mining has been suspended as a result of the ongoing conflict. However, local residents say the town is still full of both KIA and government spies and is regarded as a "brown zone," where clashes between the two sides could break out at any time.
Casualties of investment
While the government and the KIO were dividing the spoils of a lucrative industry that both profited from through concession fees and taxes, local people lost far more than they gained. As with elsewhere in the country, many were forced off their land to make way for big companies, often with little or no compensation.
"Many inhabitants of this area have very painful feelings, but they can't do anything about it because th e companies coming in all have permission from the government," said Sutdu Yup Zau Hkawng, head of the Jade Land Company, one of the leading mining companies in Hpakant.
Despite the fact that companies operating here are required to pay three types of tax (10 percent of a winning bid on a concession; 10 percent of the value of any jade discovered; and 10 percent of earnings from sales at government jade emporiums), little if any of this government revenue is ever used to improve the lives of people living in the region.
Located about 48 miles (77 km) from the state capital of Myitkyina and accessible only by four-wheel drive vehicles during the rainy season, Hpakant looks more like a small, isolated village than the center of a multi-billion dollar industry. Even the phone lines here don't work much of the time.
"Hpakant is a place where people go to make money and bring it elsewhere. Not even the local authorities are interested in dev eloping the place," said veteran journalist Bertil Lintner, author of many books on Myanmar, including "Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China."
According to economist Sean Turnell, a long-time observer of Myanmar's economy, jade was the country's largest source of foreign earnings two years ago and likely remains a close second to natural gas now that the Shwe gas fields have come on line via a newly built pipeline to China's Yunnan Province. He noted, however, that the nature of jade as a resource made the jade-mining industry even less transparent than Myanmar's notoriously opaque energy sector.
"Jade is an important asset via which wealth can be effectively stored and transferred across borders. Along the way, tax is easily avoided. In a sense, it is an underground financial market, which exists largely because [Myanmar] still lacks a more formal and effective one," he said.
A crime- and drug-fueled town
Ironically, the collapse of the ceasefire and the suspension of full-scale mining operations have given local prospectors and other small-time operators a chance to profit from an industry that under normal circumstances excludes them. Using primitive hand tools, they scour mountains stripped bare by heavy machines, searching for the precious green stones.
But this kind of mining isn't just difficult, dangerous work; it is also illegal and subject to regular crackdowns. Like everything else in this lawless town, however, that doesn't prevent anyone from doing it.
"When the government soldiers come, we just flee," said Khaing Maung Doe, an ethnic Rakhine jade prospector. "They usually come twice a day, so we just stop what we're doing and run. If we don't we'll be arrested and charged."
Those unlucky enough to get caught aren't long getting back into the game, however. All they have to do is pay a "fine" of about 50,000 to 1 00,000 kyat ($50 to $100)-usually directly to the arresting guard-and they're back in business.
Even in a country where corruption is pretty much the norm, Hpakant stands out for the sheer amount of graft that goes on here. Crime-from theft, prostitution and gambling to drug trafficking and murder-is rampant, but even when reported, the local authorities rarely if ever take action.
Massage parlors and gambling dens line the main road of Ma Mot, a village just west of Hpakant, while in Sai Taung, located on the other side of the U Ru, there's a place where heroin addicts can openly shoot up.
"Hpakant is the second Hong Kong," said U Win Htun Htun, a local jade dealer. "You can get everything you want here-girls, methamphetamines, heroin. Half the people here are drug addicts."
U Shwe Thein, the chairman of a local branch of the opposition National League for Democracy, said he had made proposals for tackling Hpakant's drug p roblem, but they fell on deaf ears.
"I proposed a campaign to eliminate drugs, but the authorities said they could only try to reduce drug use," he said. "Even though heroin and other drugs are sold by individuals, I feel the authorities are behind the sale, as they are the ones running the town."
He added that this situation has left local people feeling completely powerless. "They are like children without parents. They don't know who to turn to when they are abused."
Worst of all, he said, the rest of the country seems oblivious to what's happening in Hpakant.
"It's worse here than in Letpadaung," he said, referring to the site of a controversial Chinese-backed copper-mining project in Sagaing Region that has attracted nationwide attention. "We've lost our mountains one by one, but nobody seems to care."
This article first appeared in the February 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.
Military secures Hpakant area after 37-ton jade slab found
Democratic Voice of Burma
20 February 2014
The Burmese army has bolstered security around the Hpakant jade mining district after a 37-ton slab of jade was discovered on 9 February. The army set up a perimeter with a 15-acre radius and began shutting down small unofficial excavation plots located within.
The Kachin State Government Deputy-Director Kyaw Hsan told DVB that the 13-foot high rock was to be transported away from its discovery location, Weihka district.
The Hpakant mines are famous for producing high-quality jade, yet ongoing conflict between Burmese government forces and the Kachin Independence Army in the region caused the off icial closure of the mine in 2012.
Unofficial excavation has continued by locals and migrants from across the country, eager to source a living from the precious stone.
Yet a "loose understanding" between unlicensed miners and authorities has not always prevented arrests.
Shwe Thein, National League for Democracy (NLD) chairman for Seikhmu village-tract, said the army had detained Aung Naing Win, discoverer of the giant stone, "for his own safety". Shwe Thein went onto say that consecutive security checkpoints have been set up on the road to the discovery site.
"The Weihka-based forward battalion of the army's 101st Light Infantry Division has set up layers of security along the way up to the rock, prohibiting anyone from getting near," said Shwe Thein.
"Since the discovery of the rock, they began to enforce prohibition of small-time mining operations and it since has been bring a lot of hardship upon the local population who make a living from that."
Aung Naing Win is reported to have said that he migrated to Hpakant from lower Burma in the hope of a better life.
Moehti Moemi miners bring protest to Rangoon
Democratic Voice of Burma
27 February 2014
Workers and small-time operators from central Burma's Moehti Moemi gold mine staged a demonstration in front of the High Court in Rangoon on Wednesday, calling for the government to mediate their dispute with the National Prosperity Public Company Limited (NPPCL).
The miners have been camping in a Buddhist monastery compound in Mandalay Division's Yamethin, after they were kicked out of the mine compound. But local authorities have ordered the miners to move out of the monastery by 28 February or face forceful eviction.
"We sent letters to authorities pleading to allow us to stay at the temple and promising to do chores," said a miner at the protest.
The protesters also denounced a report in the state-run Burmese-language newspaper Kyemon (The Mirror) that claimed 54 small time operators had been paid compensation by the NPPCL totalling 308 million Kyat (US $313,400).
"This is not the case, none of us are yet to receive a penny," said one miner.
Miners at Moehti Moemi have been staging protests since June 2012, when mining conglomerate, NPPCL, was awarded a tender license to operate at the mine and small-time operations were shut down.
Since then, negotiations between the miners and the company have failed to yield any tangible results.
The miners sought permission to protest under Article 18 of the Peaceful Assembly and Peaceful Procession Law, however Rangoon authorities denied their request.
"We are not protesting but only expressing our will," protestor Myo Min said. "We have reached out to various government departments regarding our issues but they are yet to help mediate the situation and so we are gathering here."