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Collapse at notorious Myanmar rare earth mine kills 15 people

Myanmar flag. (Unsplash)
June 21, 2024

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

Rescuers recovered the bodies of 15 mine workers in northern Myanmar on Friday after a landslide at a rare earths mine, residents said, the latest deaths in an unregulated industry feeding surging demand for the minerals in China and beyond.

Thirty workers, most of them young men, were trapped in the Pang War mine in Kachin state when the collapse occurred at around midnight on Wednesday, a relative of one of the missing miners told Radio Free Asia.

“Fifteen bodies have been found so far. Two women were among them,” said the resident who declined to be identified in fear of reprisals for talking to the media. “The rest haven’t been found.”

It was the second major disaster at the mine this month. A June 4 landslide killed more than 20 people, including three Chinese nationals.

A surge in the illegal mining of rare earth metals in northern Myanmar is being driven by demand from neighboring China for terbium and dysprosium – elements that are used in the production of electric vehicles, environmental activists say.

Pang War is in an area under the control of junta forces but the mining and the pollution it generates are largely unregulated.

RFA called Kachin state’s junta spokesperson, Moe Min Thein, for information on the landslide but he did not respond. 

Environmentalists say companies from China, where mining has become increasingly regulated due to safety and environmental concerns, fund the mining and ship the ore across the nearby border for processing and sale on into global supply chains.

Chinese nationals are increasingly seen working at the mines, residents say.

RFA contacted China’s embassy in Myanmar for comment but it did not reply by the time of publication.

The number of rare earth mines in resource-rich Kachin state grew by 40% between 2021 and 2023, the environmental group Global Witness said in a recent report. There are more than 300 mines in the state’s Special Region 1 of the township, it said.

There has also been a surge of fighting in the state between junta forces and the autonomy-seeking Kachin Independence Army, at times over access to resources and trade routes.

The increase in fighting this year has displaced and killed civilians and comes as forces of the junta that seized power in a 2021 coup have faced setbacks in several parts of the country including Kachin state.

Environmental activists say all sides in Myanmar’s northernmost state seek profits from its resources, including the rare earths.