Villagers look over the site of a deadly landslide at Wai Khar jade mine in Kachin state on July 4. (Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP)
In the early hours of July 2, hundreds of jade miners barely had time to yell “run” when they were hit by a giant wave of mud and water more than six meters high that drove out of a vast pit mine swollen with rainwater.
At least 172 people were killed and many more went missing when disaster struck after heavy rains filled the mine with water, creating a lake. A wall of the mine crashed into the lake, with the huge wave of mud creating a deadly landslide.
Some 31 young Christians including three Catholics were among the dead miners at Wai Khar jade mine in Hpakant township of Kachin state, while most victims were ethnic Rakhine Buddhists, according to local sources.
The disaster occurred after a heavy rainstorm in Hpakant, where miners labor in notoriously hazardous conditions to extract jade worth billions of dollars.
Officials said the government ordered the mines in the region to close from July 1 to Sept. 30 due to the risk of landslides during the heavy rains of the monsoon season.
Over 300,000 miners come from all over Myanmar to hunt for jade — around two-thirds work illegally — even though it is a dangerous business.
Conflict-torn Kachin state, Myanmar’s northernmost state bordering China and India, is rich in natural resources. The region has been bedeviled by fighting between Myanmar's military, the Tatmadaw, and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), but the lucrative jade mining area has largely remained under government control.
Much of the wealth generated by the jade industry is controlled by the Tatmadaw, which ruled the country for decades and still retains vast authority under the 2008 constitution it drafted.
KIA, the main rebel group, also finances its operations from the jade trade.
Landslide of injustice
Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon has called the deadly landslide in Kachin state “economic and ecological injustice.” He said those who died were not only buried under a landslide of the mountain but “by the landslide of injustice.”
“Pope Francis has raised his voice against the never-ending tsunami of economic and environmental injustice against the poor all over the world. Those who perished were sacrificed on the altar of greed, by utter negligence and arrogance of companies that continue to dehumanize the poor of this land,” the cardinal said in a message on July 4.
“This mine tragedy is a grim reminder of the need for sharing God-given natural treasures. The treasures of Myanmar belong to the people of Myanmar.
“This is not the first time a merciless tragedy has struck and, if the relevant stakeholders do not respond with compassion and justice, this will not be the last inhuman tragedy.”
While commending the prompt response of authorities to the tragedy, Cardinal Bo urged the government and other stakeholders to ensure that such a tragedy does not recur.
Mine collapses occur frequently in the jade region of Kachin state. More than 50 people died in a similar landslide last year, and dozens were swept away the year before. At least 120 were buried in a 2015 accident after the collapse of a mound of mining waste.
Blind eye to nefarious practices
Global Witness, an environmental advocacy group, has blamed State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s government, labeling the latest incident “a damning indictment of the government’s failure to curb reckless and irresponsible mining practices.”
It said five years after taking office and pledging to reform the corrupt sector, the ruling National League for Democracy has yet to implement desperately needed reforms, allowing dangerous mining practices to continue and gambling with the lives of vulnerable workers in jade mines.
“The government has turned a blind eye to continued illicit and rapacious mining practices in Hpakant despite vowing to reform the hazardous sector,” said Paul Donowitz, campaign leader at Global Witness.
“The longer the government waits to introduce rigorous reforms of the jade sector, the more lives will be lost. This was an entirely preventable tragedy that should serve as an urgent wake-up call for the government.”
Myanmar produced US$31 billion worth of jade in 2014, a figure equal to 50 percent of the impoverished nation’s declared GDP, according to an unsubstantiated report by Global Witness.
Most of the precious stone ends up being sold on China’s black market, while almost all the revenue goes into the pockets of the military elite, the report said.
On July 2, Myanmar established a six-member panel to probe the disaster at the jade mine in Kachin state.
Aung San Suu Kyi said most of those killed were illegal miners. This shows it is difficult for the country’s citizens to get legal jobs and that creating job opportunities should be a priority, she added.
Christine Kai Ra, a community activist from the Kachin Nation Social Development Foundation in Hpakant, said the latest disaster shows the government’s failure to control companies who dig jade mines with big machines but lacked rules and regulations.
“This is a man-made disaster and it renews calls to fix the country’s jade mining industry,” she told UCA News.
An estimated 4,000 people have been killed in the industry between 2016 and 2020, according to Kai Ra.