YANGON - Police are hunting five gem scavengers who discovered a huge jade boulder at a mine in northern Myanmar after a senior regulatory official accused them of leading an attempt to steal it.
The prospectors found the 8.7 ton block of the precious stone last week in a mine at Hpakant in Kachin State, where they normally work at night picking through the scraps left by the owners.
They later returned with around 10,000 other people and tried to move the huge rock to a nearby school compound but were stopped by the company that owns the site, Taut Pa Kyal.
"When the workers found the jade stone, many people came to that area... many illegal workers and many rich men who wanted to buy the stone," said local aid worker Dashi Naw Lawn.
"The company called the army to keep control of the situation."
Local MP Tin Soe said Taut Pa Kyal paid the men who found the stone between 30-40 million kyat ($22,000-30,000) each and all of the other workers in the crowd another 10,000 kyat to disperse.
In total the company said it paid out over 100 million kyat, according to Tin Hoe.
But the deputy director of the state-backed regulator Myanmar Gems Enterprise, Nay Tun, has since filed charges against the five men for attempted aggravated theft of the enormous boulder.
"We are trying to arrest them," police officer Khin Oo from the Lone Khin police station in Hpakant told AFP on Wednesday.
"We still don't know where they are."
Myanmar is the source of nearly all of the world's finest jadeite, a beautiful green stone highly prized in neighbouring China where it is known as the "stone of heaven".
In October workers in Hpakant -- the heart of Myanmar's jade-producing region -- found a 174-tonne piece of jade worth about $5 million.
But the secretive trade is poorly regulated and enormously dangerous.
Hundreds of poor itinerant miners die every year in landslides as they scour for pieces of jade left behind by the industrial diggers that have carved up the landscape.
The industry is overseen by the Myanmar Gems Enterprise, run by former military men, which both regulates the sector and makes money from the mines.