Fifty-four miners in the Hpakant jade mining region in Myanmar’s Kachin state are missing following a late-night mudslide on April 22 and are now feared dead, sources in Myanmar said.
The miners, who were employed by three separate mining companies and were working a night shift, were buried along with their equipment when a lake of cast-off earth and water collapsed, triggering the slide, sources said.
“The people who are missing were buried under the mud,” Hpakant resident Yein Kyaw told RFA's Myanmar Service.
“So far they have recovered two, one dead and one alive, but there could be more, since many more were working when the accident happened.”
Final numbers of those killed in the disaster have not yet been released, though a statement by the Myanmar Fire Brigade following the collapse said that in addition to the 54 men listed as missing, two others were injured in the collapse.
The bodies of two of the missing have now been recovered, the Fire Brigade said.
Speaking to RFA, local official Phong Gum Rein confirmed that 54 workers are now missing, adding that digging machinery and other equipment was also lost in the collapse.
“We have lost 16 backhoes, 19 dump transport vehicles, and five earth excavators. These figures come from the companies themselves, and since there were no jade scavengers working in the area at the time, these numbers must be accurate,” he said.
Scavengers, migrant workers not formally employed by mining companies, descend on Hpakant throughout the year, but especially during the rainy season from May through October when landslides are most likely to occur, to search for jade remnants in the small mountains of slag cast off from mining.
Rules not enforced
Also speaking to RFA, local residents and a member of parliament for the Hpakant region said that high death tolls from frequent accidents at the mines are caused by mining companies’ disregard of existing rules laid down by the authorities.
“The companies do not follow the rules and regulations,” Tin Soe, a member of the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) and parliamentarian for Hpakant said, adding,“They don’t care about safety and security, and only think about getting their job done.”
“There are specific regulations about where to dump the waste earth from mining activities, but they illegally dump at nearby sites to save costs instead of taking the waste away over long distances,” he said.
“Over time, these illegal disposals overburden the dump sites and cause them to collapse,” he said.
Hpakant resident U Rein Kyaw meanwhile called Myanmar’s central government responsible for the deaths, saying that poor enforcement of existing laws has allowed mining companies to dig beyond permitted areas and to over-use equipment.
“This has led to the deaths of workers and loss of machinery every year,” he said. “I think that these deaths could be avoided if the ruling NLD government enforces the rules and regulations effectively.”
Dar Shi La Sai, Natural Resource and Environment Conservation Minister for the Kachin state government, said that only Myanmar’s central government has authority to enforce mining regulations, with state authorities only following their orders.
State officials have so far received no response or directions from central government authorities following the disaster, he said.
“All we can do now is visit the accident site and potential accident sites and give advice on avoiding high-risk conditions,” he said.
“We have instructed the companies to follow the safety guidelines strictly and put up more warning signs for their workers’ safety. This is all that we can do within our authority as state officials.”
Calls for reform
A string of mine-waste landslides that have killed hundreds in Hpakant in recent years in have prompted calls for reform.
In 2016, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government stopped the extension of mining permits at existing gem blocks and suspended the licensing of new blocks in an effort to clean up the mining industry.
Meanwhile, the passage of a Gemstone Law in December 2018 will do little to reform the multibillion-dollar jade sector run by companies linked to Myanmar’s military and ethnic armed groups, London-based international anti-corruption NGO Global Witness said in a statement issued after the law’s passage.
In the absence of clear guidelines and strong enforcement, “companies with histories of illegal activities and irresponsible mining practices will be able to obtain new licenses,” the statement said.
Hpakant, which lies about 400 miles (640 kilometers) north of Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, is the center of the country’s jade mining industry and produces some of the highest-quality jade in the world.
Much of the gem is exported or smuggled to neighboring China, where demand for the precious stone is high.
Reported by Elizabeth Jangma for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written by Richard Finney.