This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.
At least 25 people have died and more than three dozen people are missing in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state after a landslide triggered by heavy rains over the weekend buried workers at a jade mine, most of whom were small-scale scavengers and prospectors, sources at the site said Monday.
The landslide, which occurred at around 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, highlights lax safety measures at the area in Hpakant township, where nearly 300 people died in similar accidents last year. Poor oversight of mining operations has only worsened under Myanmar’s military junta, which seized power in a February 2021 coup d’etat.
A rescue worker said that 39 people remain missing and 25 bodies had been recovered. He said the block of land where the landslide took place is owned by Jade Leaf Co. Ltd., but operations had been suspended due to downpours during the rainy season.
Video of the aftermath of the incident, obtained by RFA, shows brown water surging up the sides of muddy embankments that circle the caldera of the mine as people look on. In the background, a steep, dark stain runs down the side of a nearby cliff, where scavengers were washed away by a torrent of moving earth.
Divers have been unable to enter the pool at the caldera of the mine site and can only hang hooks from motorboats to drag the water for remains as collapses continue, he added, speaking on condition of anonymity citing security concerns.
Most of those killed or missing had entered the block illegally to scavenge for precious stones in piles of excavated earth and rubble, he said.
‘They couldn’t get back onto land’
A person who survived the incident said that he recognized the impending collapse after experiencing a similar landslide in the area.
“We yelled warnings to the people digging under the cliff, but they didn’t hear us,” said the man, who also declined to be named. “We ran uphill and escaped the danger, but the rest of the people were swallowed up by the landslide … right before my eyes.”
Many people sustained injuries in the accident and eight were sent to the hospital for treatment, he added.
Another eyewitness who was excavating near the landslide said he knew many of those who went missing in the collapse.
“Since the water was churning, they couldn’t get back onto land,” he said. “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.”
Win Ye Tun, the junta’s spokesman 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 providing assistance.
“We have been continuously assisting those impacted, giving them medical treatment and providing aid,” he said, acknowledging that “some people needed to be sent to the hospital” to treat their injuries.
Illegal operations an unsafe conditions
More than 190 people died in a landslide at the Wai Khar jade mining site in Hapkant in 2022, while nearly 80 company employees and miners died in a separate accident at mining sites owned by Myanmar National Co. and Shan Yoma Co. last year.
Under the deposed National League for Democracy, or NLD, jade mining concessions had been suspended in Hpakant and around 90% of mining rights had expired by the end of 2020.
However, residents of the area told RFA that since the coup, jade companies have illegally restarted mining operations and skirted scrutiny by paying taxes to the Kachin Liberation Organization, an ethnic army in the area, and the junta.
Aung Hein Min, an NLD member of parliament for Hpakant who won his seat in the November 2020 election, said that 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,” he said. “The rainy season provides plenty of water, which can prompt these disasters.”
According to a recent statement by the 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.