Five dead after Myanmar police clash with jade scavengers

YANGON (AFP) - At least five people were killed and 20 injured after Myanmar police opened fire on an armed mob of jade seekers that tried to enter a mine in the far north, state media reported Friday (Oct 20), the latest deadly incident in a murky multi-billion-dollar industry.

The violence erupted after police blocked around 50 jade scavengers from accessing an industrial plot owned by "111 Company" in Kachin State's Hpakant - the hub of a lucrative trade beset by worker unrest, deadly landslides, corruption and drug abuse.

An hour later, "nearly 600 people returned and attacked the police, burning dump trucks and destroying a backhoe," the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar reported.

"As police were attacked with knives, police opened fire to drive back the attackers," the state mouthpiece said.

"Five people were killed and 20 people and five police officers were injured," it added.

Two locals in Hpakant told AFP Friday the toll was higher, with at least seven killed at the scene and three more having died in hospital.

Most of the world's best quality jadeite is mined in Hpakant - a once lush region that has been carved into a barren moonscape by industrial firms linked to Myanmar's junta-era elite.

The vast majority of the stone is shipped to neighbouring China where there is a seemingly insatiable demand for the green gemstone which is considered lucky.

In recent years poor workers from across Myanmar have poured into Hpakant to scour the rubble for any hunks of stone passed over by the mining giants.

The work is laden with danger in an area frequently hit by deadly landslides during the monsoon season, with one of the worst incidents in 2015 leaving more than 100 dead.

Clashes are also common with security forces trying to keep itinerant workers off company land.

Mr Aung Min, a local resident of Hpakant, said the firm that owned the mine where the bloodshed took place is known as one of the biggest and most powerful in the industry.

"The jade searchers were wrong to enter the company's land but the company's response was really strong," he added. "The jade searchers went after police with digging tools but the police had guns."

While the mining firms are raking in huge sums from the lucrative trade, there has been little trickle down benefit to local communities ravaged by the environmental degradation.

In a 2015 report, advocacy group Global Witness estimated that the value of Myanmar jade produced in 2014 alone was US$31 billion (S$42.2bil) and said the trade might be the "biggest natural resource heist in modern history".

The shadowy industry has also fuelled unrest between Myanmar's powerful military and ethnic rebels in insurgency-torn Kachin, both of whom are believed to profit from the trade.

Drug abuse is rampant among miners with cheap heroin and crystal meth easily accessible because of proximity to the notorious Golden Triangle region.