A massive landslide at a jade mine in northern Myanmar Thursday buried more than 200 scavengers, killing at least 162 and injuring at least 54 others, rescue volunteers said, in the newest disaster in a industry affected by corruption and lack of government oversight.
Heavy rains brought small mountains piles of loose dirt and rubble on the scavengers, creating a “lake of mud” full of bodies early Thursday morning in Kachin State’s Hpakant township, the site of repeated illegal mine tragedies killing scores of people annually.
“It has been raining non-stop, day and night here in Hpakant all this week,” Shwe Thein, chairman of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party’s office in the township, told RFA.
“There are weak spots in the soil near Whey Khar village. They collapsed during the heavy rains,” he said.
Local fire officials said inclement weather was slowing rescue work.
“The rescue operations are delayed by the heavy rains here. There is a risk of more landslides, so we paused our operations,” La Jon, deputy head of the Hpakant township Fire Department, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The scavengers, or yemase as they are known locally, are among Myanmar’s poorest citizens. They originate from all over the country to sift through rubble dumped by the mining companies for discarded jade stones.
Volunteer rescue workers described a hellish scene while they toiled in the mud to try to recover the scavengers’ bodies and discover survivors.
“The bodies are buried in the lake of mud. We are employing the lifebuoys and boats to recover [them],” Saw Linn, a volunteer from Thin Khar, a local humanitarian group, told RFA.
“We cover the recovered bodies with plastic and transport them to the clinics. Many bodies are still under the water,” said Saw Linn.
Zaw Moe Htet, a Hpakant-based journalist, told RFA the rescue vehicles were struggling to reach the disaster site in poor road conditions.
“The whole area has been turned into muddy ponds by the heavy rains. There is also a risk of further collapses,” he said.
“The vehicles to carry the bodies can not come near to the collapse site. Rescuers went [on foot] into the pit. They are manually carrying the recovered bodies of a furlong [1/8 mile] and putting them on the floor in the plastic,” said Zaw Moe Htet.
“They need to carry these bodies farther to a place where vehicles can reach,” the journalist said.
As of Thursday night local time, 162 bodies had been recovered and 54 injured individuals were sent to a hospital in nearby Whey Khar village.
According to the Kachin State government, official mining activities were suspended for 3 months starting Wednesday due to the increased risk of mudslides.
“But we cannot stop the jade scavengers who came to collect valuable stones at the site,” Darshi Lasai, of the state’s Natural Resource and Conservation Ministry told RFA.
“The mining companies use explosives, which have weakened the soil. That’s what caused these landslides,” the ministry official said.
Fatal landslides and mudslides at mining websites in the Hpakant area are common, as mining businesses have not been held accountable by law.
According to the records of NLD party’s township office, at least 137 people were killed in seven landslides and rubble pile collapses in Hpakant Township last year. In November 2015 a similar collapse of jade mining waste piles killed 116 scavengers and left 100 missing and presumed dead.
According to Darshi Lasai, their state government won’t have jurisdiction on the mining businesses, as their plots are granted and administered by the central Union government.
“We are just coordinating on the [Union government’s] instructions here on the ground. We cannot give orders to these companies. We can only suggest that they become more careful within their mining activities,” said Darshi Lasai.
The London-based anti-corruption NGO Global Witness said the multi-billion dollar mining sector in Myanmar is run by companies for this country’s military, enabling them to skirt government scrutiny.
A member of Myanmar’s parliament representing Kachin said that legislation to regulate mining practices has been bogged down by red tape.
“It is very difficult to administer mining activities because there are over a thousand excavators digging in such a small area in Kpakant,” said MP Khin Maung Myint.
“There is a [gemstone] law to govern mining activities. It was finished drafting in 2017. It was submitted and discussed at the parliament for over per year in 2018. But only in 2019 was regulations was approved signing by the president,” the MP added.
But despite being passed, that law has yet to be implemented, he said
Global Witness condemned the Myanmar government’s failure to prevent “reckless and irresponsible mining practices” – saying the NLD has not yet enacted reforms to the mining sector that it promised upon coming to power nearly five years ago.
Despite the Gemstone Law’s passage in 2019, the sector remains “corrupt,” the NGO said.
“The government has turned a blind eye to continued illicit and rapacious mining practices in Hpakant despite vowing to reform the hazardous sector,” said Paul Donowitz, campaign leader at Global Witness.
“The longer the government waits to introduce rigorous reforms of the jade sector, the more lives will be lost. This was an entirely preventable tragedy that should serve as an urgent wake-up call for the government,” he added.
Up to 90 percent of the world’s jadeite is mined in Hpakant, & most of eventually ends up for sale in China, where it’s prized for jewelry, researchers say.
Reported by Zarni Htun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Eugene Whong.