HPAKANT, Myanmar/YANGON (Reuters) - When Brang Aung left home in early April, his wife pleaded for him to stay for their newborn son’s naming ceremony, just a few weeks later.
Instead, the youthful 43-year-old returned to his job a three-hour journey away as a backhoe operator for a jade mining company, keen to earn money to support a growing family, four relatives told Reuters.
Brang Aung had worked in Hpakant, northern Myanmar’s notoriously dangerous mining district, for eight years, but still told his family - Christians from the Kachin ethnic minority - to pray for his safety.
During a night shift on April 22, disaster struck. A muddy lake above his employer’s mining site breached its banks, unleashing a wave of water and dirt that buried 55 men instantly. None survived.
The tragedy was a reminder of the dangers workers such as Brang Aung face daily unearthing the valuable gemstone that is prized in neighboring China.
“The companies are earning a lot, but they don’t value the lives of the people at all,” said Brang Aung’s mother, Hkawn Bu. “It’s not just one or two people who have died, it’s hundreds. The government should protect its own citizens.”
The family never held a naming ceremony, but call the boy Htoi San Aung, the name Brang Aung had chosen for his son.
Jobs in the hills of Hpakant can pay well by the standards of rural Myanmar - Brang Aung earned around $290 a month. But the area has a reputation for lawlessness, with high rates of drug addiction and HIV, and the jade mines themselves are frequently hit by deadly accidents.
The government of Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi pledged to clean up the industry when it took power in 2016, but activists say little has changed.
Reliable statistics on safety in Hpakant were not available, but media have reported scores killed in the past three years, many of them freelance “jade pickers” who scour tailings - the residue from mining - for stones that have been missed by larger operators.
Myo Nyunt, a spokesman for Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said the jade industry was beset by “many difficulties because regulations are not being followed”.
Regulations were still being drafted to implement a new law passed last year that would help bring mining under control by limiting the area covered by individual licenses, he said, reducing the power of large companies.
“The more we can control the influence of big companies, the more effectively we can work on workers’ safety,” Myo Nyunt said.
Undated photos of the site taken before the incident in which Brang Aung was killed, posted on Facebook, show a large pool of water had formed above where his employer, Myanmar-owned Nine Golden Dragons, was digging for jade.
The company and a neighboring block’s occupant, Myanmar Thura, had scraped away the earth until a cliff towered above them on one side, with the muddy lake on the other.
Reuters was unable to reach either of the companies for comment. Office addresses for both listed on a government companies’ registry were out of date. Workers present at the mine site when Reuters visited declined to comment.
Suu Kyi’s NLD won a landslide victory in a historic election in November 2015, the same month that a massive slag heap collapsed in Hpakant and killed more than 100 people. A spokesman for the party told Reuters at the time the new administration would review regulations to ensure the mining area was safe.
Months after taking power, the NLD government announced a moratorium on new licenses, drawing praise from activists.
But companies whose licenses expire often simply move their machinery to a mining block licensed to another company and enter an informal revenue-sharing arrangement, monitors say.
Aung Nyunt Thein, managing director of the Myanmar Gems Enterprise, a state-owned enterprise that is the main regulator of the jade industry, said firms were allowed to agree to “share” their business in this way.
A group of community organizations wrote to President Win Myint in September last year, warning of the dangers of an “unlawful situation” in Hpakant.
The letter raised concerns about environmental damage from mining, the overuse of dynamite, and violent crime and drug abuse going unchecked in the area.
“Many people have also been killed by landfill collapses because of dumping earth without discipline,” the letter said.
Reuters was unable to reach officials at the president’s office for comment.
Aung Nyunt Thein said Myanmar Gems Enterprise does regulate mining in the area, for example by restricting companies’ use of dynamite. But he added: “Hpakant is not normal. The rule of law is weak there.”
Another official at the regulator, deputy managing director Thet Khaing, said officials “don’t have the resources to manage the quantity of permissions we have given”.
Five days after the April 22 collapse, the scene was unrecognizable from the earlier photographs.
Kyaw Kyaw Lwin, one of about a dozen rescue workers still on the site, told visiting Reuters reporters that there was no hope of pulling bodies from the deep pit of thick mud that had entombed the workers and their machines.
“It’s impossible to find a body in this mud. If a body floats up, we try our best to retrieve it,” he said.
Some machinery was recovered from the mud, but just five bodies were retrieved. Brang Aung’s was not among them.
“The thing I want most is for them to find the body of my son,” said Hkawn Bu, shedding a tear. “Whatever the body looks like, whether it’s black and blue, I want to see it.”
Following the collapse, authorities suspended 17 mining blocks belonging to 11 companies around Hpakant, citing safety concerns. Nine Golden Dragons and Myanmar Thura, named by authorities as the two companies whose workers died on April 22, were not included and have faced no censure.
According to data submitted by Myanmar as part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), Nine Golden Dragons holds three active licenses in Maw Wan Lay, the area of the collapse, as well as eight other active licenses.
Myanmar Thura has held three licenses in different areas nearby, but all had expired by the end of 2017, the data shows.
Myanmar Gems Enterprise investigated the incident and found the companies were not at fault, said Aung Myint Thein.
“According to our investigation they didn’t break the rules. They were just doing their work and the instability of the earth happened,” he said.
Brang Aung’s family accepted compensation of about $30,000 from his employer. It was more than most have received in past payouts for industrial accidents in Hpakant, according to activists.
The total compensation paid to families of the April 22 disaster’s victims would be equivalent to just “one good piece of jade”, Hkawn Bu told Reuters. Jade brokers say a high quality jade stone can be worth in excess of $1 million.
Official sales of jade in Myanmar were worth 671 million euros ($750.04 million) in 2016-17, the most recent year for which government data has been published under EITI.
But experts believe the true value of the industry, which mainly exports to China, is much larger.
The New York-based Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI) estimates that between 59% and 74% of jade by volume is not registered with authorities and therefore out of sight of tax authorities, based on data from 2014 to 2016.
Regulators remain underfunded and unable to inspect the hundreds of mining operations, said Maw Htun Aung, NRGI’s Myanmar country manager.
“Nobody follows the safety procedure,” he said of the state of the industry in Hpakant. “Lives are really cheap.”
Reporting by Shoon Naing and Sam Aung Moon in Hpakant and Simon Lewis in Yangon; Editing by Alex Richardson