Dozens of jade miners who remain missing on Thursday following a landslide in Myanmar’s Kachin State have “very little chance of survival”, according to a fire department official, as overnight rescue operations were called off with one fatality confirmed.
“It is so difficult to estimate how many were missing, but we estimate at least 50 missing and they have very little chance of survival,” said Pyae Nyein, captain of Hpakant Township’s fire department, told Reuters news agency.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
A landslide of dirt and rubble ripped down the waste heap of Hpakant on Wednesday, burying workers under the debris. Hpakant is the centre of the country’s secretive jade industry, which draws poor workers from across the country in search of gems mostly for export to China.
Initial reports said that between 70 and 100 people were missing, but the number was later reduced to at least 50.
Ko Nyi, a rescuer, told the AFP news agency that they had sent 25 people to hospital and found one dead.
Ko Jack from the Myanmar Rescue Organization also told AFP that the search was stopped on Wednesday due to fog and mist, and was to resume on Thursday morning.
“It seems they are buried underneath soil. It’s cold here that’s why we have stopped, but will continue.”
Hundreds of diggers had returned to Hpakant during the rainy season to prospect in the treacherous open-cast mines, according to a local activist, despite a military government ban on digging until March 2022.
“They mine at night and in the morning they tip out the earth and rock,” the activist said.
The opposition National Unity Government has also called for a suspension of mining in the area.
Throngs of their families stood on bare, muddy banks on the shores of the lake near the site of the landslide, as rescue workers in hard hats and jackets searched the water in boats on Wednesday, images posted on Facebook by the fire department showed.
Deadly landslides and other accidents are common in Hpakant. In a landslide last weekend, media reported at least six people were killed.
Economic pressures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have drawn more migrants to the jade mines even as conflict has flared since Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup in February.
Today’s awful #Myanmar 🇲🇲 mining disaster highlights the coup’s deadly toll on Hpakant – the country's main jade mining region – and the urgent need to prevent the military junta cashing in on jade revenues.https://t.co/TwpRwEXSQ0
— Global Witness (@Global_Witness) December 22, 2021
In a statement, Global Witness, an anti-corruption watchdog, said the incident on Wednesday “highlights the devastating toll of the military coup on jade mining communities in northern Myanmar and the urgent need to prevent the junta using the country’s natural resources as a financial lifeline”.
Hanna Hindstrom, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, added that the disaster is “a haunting reminder that lives too often come second to profit in the jade mines of Hpakant, where a toxic combination of lawlessness, conflict and corruption has set the stage for yet another preventable tragedy”.
The ousted government of Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi had pledged to clean up the industry when it took power in 2016, but activists say little has changed.
In July last year, more than 170 people, many of them migrants, died in one of the worst disasters in Hpakant after a pile of mining waste collapsed into a lake.
Myanmar produces 90 percent of the world’s jade, according to estimates by the Reuters news agency and mining watchdogs.
Most of the jade comes from Hpakant, where rights groups say mining firms with links to military elites and ethnic armed groups make billions of dollars a year.
The February coup also effectively extinguished any chance of reforms to the dangerous and unregulated industry, Global Witness said earlier this year.
In another report released last week, Global Witness said Myanmar’s military is now in control of the country’s multimillion-dollar gemstone industry.
The anti-corruption watchdog said that given the military’s control of the sector, luxury jewellers risk funding military abuses in Myanmar.