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Scores dead in Myanmar jade landslide

HPAKHANT, Myanmar: The bodies of miners killed in a landslide are placed on the ground in a jade mining area in Kachin state yesterday. - AFP
HPAKHANT, Myanmar: The bodies of miners killed in a landslide are placed on the ground in a jade mining area in Kachin state yesterday. – AFP

YANGON: Around 100 people have died in a huge landslide in a remote jade mining area of northern Myanmar, officials said yesterday, as search teams continued to find bodies in one of the deadliest disasters to strike the country’s shadowy jade industry. Those killed were thought to have been mainly itinerant miners, who scratch a living scavenging through mountains of waste rubble dumped by mechanical diggers used by mining firms at the centre of a secretive multi-billion dollar jade industry in war-torn Kachin state.

Saturday’s massive landslide crushed dozens of flimsy shanty huts clustered on the barren landscape, home to an unknown number of people. The disaster happened at about 3.30am local time (2100GMT) and lasted just a couple of minutes, according to Zaw Moe Htet, a small scale local gems trader whose village overlooks the devastated area in the Hpakant mining area. “Even people living in villages further away could hear the cries of those who rushed to the scene,” he told AFP.
Video footage of the area shot on Saturday shows men carrying several bodies slung in blankets watched by a crowd of local people in a dusty plain near the village of Sai Tung. Nilar Myint an official from the local administrative authorities in Hpakant told AFP that rescue teams have so far found 97 people killed in the landslide.

Rescue operations continue with the Myanmar Red Cross, army, police and local community groups, but officials say they have little hope of pulling people alive from the rubble. “We are seeing only dead bodies,” said Nilar Myint. She added that because the men were mostly migrant workers, authorities were struggling to identify any of those killed. “The victims’ families live elsewhere. They only live and work in this area but they come from many different places,” she said.

Myanmar is the source of virtually all of the world’s finest jadeite, a near-translucent green stone that is prized above almost all other materials in neighbouring China. Landslides are a common hazard in Hpakant as prospectors pick their way across perilous mounds, often under cover of darkness, driven by the hope that they might find a chunk of jade that would deliver them from poverty. Scores have been killed this year alone as local people say the mining firms, many of which are linked to the country’s junta-era military elite, scale up their operations in Kachin. But this appears to be the largest such accident in the secluded region.

In an October report, advocacy group Global Witness estimated that the value of Myanmar jade produced in 2014 alone was $31 billion, the equivalent of nearly half the country’s GDP. But that figure is around 10 times the official $3.4 billion sales of the precious stone last year, in an industry that has long been shrouded in secrecy with much of the best jade thought to be smuggled directly to China.

Local people in Hpakant complain of a litany of abuses associated with the mining industry, including the frequency of accidents and land confiscations. The area has been turned into a moonscape of environmental destruction as huge diggers gouge the earth looking for jade. Itinerant miners are drawn from all parts of Myanmar by the promise of riches and become easy prey for drug addiction in Hpakant, where heroin and methamphetamine are cheaply available on the streets.

“Industrial-scale mining by big companies controlled by military families and companies, cronies and drug lords has made Hpakant a dystopian wasteland where locals are literally having the ground cut from under their feet,” said Mike Davis of Global Witness, calling for firms to be held accountable for accidents. The group wants the jade industry, which has long been the subject of United States sanctions, to be part of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), a global scheme designed to increase transparency around natural resource management. – AFP

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