At least 12 scavengers searching for jade deposits died and 11 others were injured on Tuesday in Myanmar’s Hpakant township when mountainous slag heaps collapsed on them due to heavy rain, according to local residents.
The incident is the latest in a string of deadly mining-waste landslides that have occurred during the past in year Hpakant, the center of the country’s highly lucrative jade-mining business, in northeastern Myanmar’s Kachin state.
“It was a huge landslide, and many were injured, and many are missing,” said Aung Tun Naing, a jade mine worker on the site where Tuesday’s landslide occurred. “The rock walls have cracks, so the collapse occurred due to heavy rain during the day and night.”
Rescue work at the accident site has temporarily stopped because of the rain, although hundreds of people are still missing, sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Those injured in the disaster were taken to Hpakant hospital where the bodies of the dead were collected, they said.
Three people in critical condition were moved to the hospital in Kachin’s capital Myitkyina, said village administrator Kyaw Min.
“The rest are in good condition now,” he said. “We will find other bodies if they are still missing.”
If the heavy rain continues, more landslides will occur in the area, Aung Tun Naing said.
“The current situation in the jade mines is very dangerous,” he said, adding that those who work in and around the mines usually do not take safety precautions.
“Most workers don’t care about safety,” he said. “They just want to get the jade.”
Last November, more than 100 people died when a 200-foot pile of dirt and debris from mining activities collapsed, engulfing huts in an encampment of jade scavengers and their families.
Another 13 people believed to be scavengers died earlier this month in a landslide while searching for jade remnants amid waste cast off from mining operations.
Hpakant, which lies 651 kilometers (404 miles) north of Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, produces some of the highest-quality jade in the world, much of which is exported or smuggled to China, where demand for the precious stone is high.
Blasts and clashes
Hostilities between an ethnic army in Kachin and the Myanmar military have also rocked Hpakant and affected its jade-mining activities.
More than a week ago, unknown assailants blew up the offices of two jade-mining companies in the township, destroying heavy vehicles, trucks and workers’ hostels, local officials told RFA at the time.
The blasts occurred soon after new clashes broke out between the Myanmar army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) following the detention by the KIA of a regional government minister and three policemen, Democratic Voice of Burma reported.
The KIA controls large swathes of Kachin state, where it has regularly clashed with the national army since a bilateral cease-fire with the government collapsed in 2011.
Khin Maung Myint, a lawmaker from Hpakant in the upper house of Myanmar’s parliament, said the spate of landslides has occurred because of the lack of rule of law in the area.
He pointed out that there are two brigades and two security battalions in the area whose job it is to ensure law and order in Hpakant, especially with regard to jade-mining activities.
“It is obvious that they are not working … they are only searching people to find jade [on them],” he told RFA.
The military is ignoring the rule of law as if it is trying to regain power again, he said, in a reference to the roughly 50 years when a military junta ruled the country until 2011.
Former President Thein Sein signed a nationwide cease-fire agreement with eight armed ethnic groups last October, but the KIA’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), was not among them.
‘Opposite of what she wants’
Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s de facto leader, has made peace and national reconciliation between the national army and various armed rebel groups, and among the rebel groups themselves, a priority of the government under her National League for Democracy (NLD) party.
She sees the resolution of the hostilities as key to Myanmar’s ability to reform and develop after decades of military rule.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also foreign minister and minister of the President’s Office, expects to hold what she calls a 21st-century Panglong Conference in July to discuss permanent peace with the country’s armed ethnic groups.
Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, General Aung San, held talks known as the Panglong Conference in February 1947 to grant autonomy to the Shan, Kachin and Chin ethnic minorities, when he was head of the interim government following Myanmar’s release from British colonial rule.
But Aung San’s assassination in July 1947 prevented the agreements made during the conference from reaching fruition, and ethnic groups took up arms against the central government in wars that ground on for decades.
“The military has started fighting with ethnic armed groups again,” Khin Maung Myint said. “It means the military is doing the opposite of what she wants.”
A report issued last October by London-based anti-corruption and environmental advocacy group Global Witness noted that country’s jade industry remains tightly controlled by a network of former generals, drug lords, and crony businessmen who retain the sector’s profits exclusively for themselves.
Reported by Kyaw Myo Min and Tin Aung Khine for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.