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Dozens feared dead in Myanmar landslides

Similar accidents in Kachin state in northern Myanmar left some 300 dead last year
Rescue workers look for people after the landslide at a jade mine, in Hpakant, Kachin state, Myanmar, on Aug. 14

Rescue workers look for people after the landslide at a jade mine, in Hpakant, Kachin state, Myanmar, on Aug. 14. (Photo: Citizen journalist via RFA)

Published: August 15, 2023 11:38 AM GMT
Updated: August 15, 2023 11:41 AM GMT

At least 36 people are feared dead after landslides buried dozens of scavengers at a jade mining site in Kachin state of northern Myanmar, says a report.

Rescue workers were unable to retrieve the bodies from the site despite frantic efforts after the disaster at a jade mine in Hpakant township on Aug. 13, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.

Similar accidents in the same area left some 300 dead last year, highlighting lax safety measures at mining sites in the region, the report stated.

"According to our current list, 36 people are missing, but we haven't found any bodies yet. The rescue process has been delayed by a series of minor landslides still happening in the area,” an unnamed rescue worker said.

Around eight other injured were sent to the hospital for treatment.

The site is owned by Jade Leaf Co. Ltd., but operations had been suspended due to downpours during the rainy season. However, illegal scavengers defied the fatal risks.

“Most of those missing had entered the block illegally to scavenge for precious stones in piles of excavated earth and rubble,” the rescue worker said.

A video of the incident circulating online shows brown water surging up the sides of muddy embankments that circle the caldera of the mine as people look on.

An unnamed survivor stated that the victims could not hear the warnings about the impending landslides.

“We yelled warnings to the people digging under the cliff, but they didn't hear us,” the unnamed survivor said.

“We ran uphill and escaped the danger, but the rest of the people were swallowed up by the landslide … right before my eyes,” he further added.

Another unnamed eyewitness stated that most of the victims were known to him.

“Five or six of my friends are gone. The mining company left the piles of rubble and excavated earth just as they were and as the rainwater flowed down, all of them collapsed,” the unnamed victim said.

Win Ye Tun, a spokesman of the military junta and social minister for Kachin state, told RFA that only 10 people were reported missing or injured as of Monday morning and said authorities have been assisting.

“We have been continuously assisting those impacted, giving them medical treatment and providing aid,” Tun said, acknowledging that “some people needed to be sent to the hospital” to treat their injuries.

In 2022, around 190 people died in a landslide at the Wai Khar jade mining site in Hapkant.

Whereas around 80 company employees and miners died in a separate accident at mining sites owned by Myanmar National Co. and Shan Yoma Co. last year.

Residents alleged that jade companies have illegally restarted mining operations following the 2021 coup by bribing the Kachin Liberation Organization, an armed rebel group, and the junta.

Under the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD), jade mining concessions had been suspended in Hpakant and around 90 percent of mining rights had expired by the end of 2020.

Aung Hein Min, an NLD lawmaker from Hpakant pointed out that the untimely deaths and landslides in the township are caused by the permeation of rainwater during the rainy season.

“Many people go there to mine, often at spots that were previously excavated by manpower or machinery and can easily collapse if they are dug out again,” Min said.

“The rainy season provides plenty of water, which can prompt these disasters,” Aung pointed out.

According to U.K.-based rights group, Global Witness, nearly 400,000 people in Myanmar rely on scavenging precious stones in the Hpakant region to earn a living – most of whom work under unsafe conditions.

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