Hpakant's jade war heats up in western Kachin state



The last four weeks have seen a significant increase in fighting between Burma's military and members of the armed wing of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) in the Hpakant region of western Kachin state, home to the world's best source for true jadeite. The heavy fighting in Hpakant is a direct consequence of the the military's campaign to prevent the KIO from profiting from the area's lucrative jade trade.

While the KIO controlled and profited directly from jade mining in Hpakant during its previous phase of conflict with Burma's central government from 1961 to 1994, under the ceasefire that halted their insurrection the group gave up its right to tax jade mining in Kachin state. When the 17 year ceasefire agreement ended last June the KIO quickly reasserted control over large sections of Hpakant and once again started taxing jade mining in the region.

The Burmese military has responded by attempting to re-take control of the entire Hpakant region and in May ordered all heavy mining equipment used in the jade mining process to be removed from the area. The KIO has resisted the army's efforts to retake areas now under its control in Hpakant. This includes an August 29 strike on the Wai Aung Kaba mining company compound, which according to KIO estimates killed more than 140 government soldiers.

The increase in fighting has caused thousands of local Hpakant residents and migrant miners living in the area to be displaced, creating a major humanitarian crisis. Aid workers in the area say that at least 10,000 people from Hpakant have been made homeless since the recent army offensive began. The internally displaced people from Hpakant are taking shelter in local churches and monasteries however aid supplies are quickly running out.

The military's campaign to re-take control of Hpakant has also involved carrying out human rights abuses against the local civilian population. Eyewitnesses tell KNG that on September 5 government troops shot in the neck an unarmed Kachin civilian named Kareng Naw Chyan. He was later taken to hospital where he died from his injuries.

On September 7 witnesses saw Burmese troops detain Saga La Awng, a 20 year old mine worker and then force him into a rice sack. While bundled in the sack Saga La Awng was then thrown into a mine pit where he is believed to have died.

On Tuesday a group of about about 30 Burmese troops entered a mine operated by the Sein Aung company where they detained a group of artisanal jade miners known as yemase. The mine is located between Maw Wan Gyi and Maw Wan Kalay. According to KNG source the company owners had requested that military troops come and protect the site.

Eyewitnesses tell KNG that the military's version of “protection” consisted of selecting the ethnic Kachin miners out for a beatdown. “Burmese soldiers suddenly came and detained the yemase men (civilian raw jade collectors) and inquired about their ethnic nationality. Only the Kachin workers were beaten with guns and robbed of all their belongings, including cellphones, wristwatches and money”, an eyewitness told KNG.

Hours later the troops from the KIO responded by ambushing the soldiers in a guerrilla hit, according to eyewitnesses. It is unknown how many of the soldiers were hurt or injured.