Hopes Fade For Myanmar Landslide Survivors as Lawmakers Urge Greater Safety For Miners

myanmar-jademine-nov242015.jpg Rescue teams search for bodies buried by landslide in Hpakant, Myanmar, Nov. 24, 2015.

The number of migrant workers killed by a landslide at a jade mining site in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state over the weekend has now climbed to 115 according to local media, as fears mount that an unknown number of victims may still be buried, sources said.

At least 70 makeshift miners’ huts are believed to have been buried in Hpakant township on Saturday by the collapse of a 200-foot mountain of dirt dumped by mining companies last year that had attracted a large number of migrant workers searching for discarded jade.

Warnings by authorities to workers not to set up huts in the area were routinely ignored, a member of parliament belonging to Myanmar’s ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“This is an area with minimal rule of law where over 100,000 miners from different regions are working,” Hla Swe, a USDP lawmaker and Mining and Resources Affairs Committee member said.

“They never listened to the warnings,” Hla Swe said, adding that a law proposed three years ago to improve working conditions at the mining sites had stalled in the parliament and was never passed.

“If we can approve this law, these kinds of problems will be reduced, I think,” he said.

Concerns over safety, environment

Major concerns over the proper use of land at the site remain unaddressed, Win Myo Thu, director of the Yangon-based community development and environmental protection group EcoDev, told RFA.

“The first concern is how to regulate use of the land,” Win Myo Thu said.

“The second issue is that every company [operating in Hpakant] needs to know how to protect the environment,” he said.

“The relevant government departments have not come up with appropriate rules, and this has led to the loss of life we are seeing now.”

Wire service reports on Tuesday cited an official death toll of 113 in the disaster, though a report by The Global New Light of Myanmar gave a higher figure, quoting authorities in Hpakant.

“One more body was recovered yesterday [Monday], bringing the death toll to 115,” the New Light said.

“Of them, 30 bodies are unidentified yet, according to an official from Hpakant Township General Administration Department,” the paper said.

Estimates of those believed still buried in the collapse vary widely, with one local official saying that 4 to 5 bodies may still be recovered, and local mine workers telling an RFA reporter on the scene that as many as 200 remain missing.

Industry tightly controlled

The mining industry has taken off in Myanmar since the country’s former military regime handed power to President Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government in 2011, leading to the lifting of many western-imposed sanctions.

According to a study released last month by London-based Global Witness, despite growing political reform in Myanmar, the country’s jade industry is still tightly controlled by a network of former generals, drug lords, and crony businessmen who keep the sector’s vast profits exclusively for themselves.

Major players in the estimated U.S. $31 billion trade include former junta chief Than Shwe and senior figures in Myanmar’s ruling and military-dominated Union Solidarity and Development Party, the report said.

Global Witness said that an openly and equitably managed jade mining industry could greatly benefit the ethnic Kachin people and help drive development across Myanmar, but instead, “the people of Kachin State are seeing their livelihoods disappear and their landscape shattered by the intensifying scramble for their most prized asset.”

Dozens of small-scale miners have been injured or killed picking through the dangerous waste dumps in Hpakant over the last year, and Global Witness said that those who oppose the jade mining industry in the area “face land grabs, intimidation and violence.”

Up to 90 percent of the world’s jadeite is mined in Hpakant—most of which ends up for sale in China.

Drug abuse is rampant in Hpakant, with heroin and methamphetamine easily available as a side effect of Myanmar's high-stakes narcotics trade.

Reported by Kyaw Myo Min, Kyaw Kyaw Aung, and Khin Khin Ei for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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