BANGKOK (AP) — A landslide in northern Myanmar, the world’s largest source of jade, killed 15 miners and left at least 35 others missing, local residents said Tuesday.
The accident occurred Monday night in Kachin state’s Hpakant township, a remote mountainous region at the center of the lucrative jade mining industry. Human rights activists say jade mining is an important source of revenue for Myanmar’s military government.
Earth and waste from several mines around Ma Mone village slid about 90 meters (300 feet) down on more than 50 miners and mechanics from the YTT Mining Group, said a local resident who asked not to be identified because he feared for his safety.
At least three excavators and trucks were also buried in the landslide, he said.
Similar accidents occur several times a year, with the victims usually independent miners who settle near giant mounds of discarded earth that has been excavated by heavy machinery used by mining companies. They scavenge for bits of jade and usually work and live in abandoned mining pits at the base of the unstable mounds of earth.
Smuggling and illicit sales make it hard to know exactly how big the jade mining industry is, but revenue from sales of jade, pearls and gemstones is estimated to run in the billions of dollars. Opponents of army rule advocate sanctions and boycotts to reduce jade sales.
There is sporadic fighting in the area between the Myanmar army and guerrilla forces of the Kachin ethnic minority, but because both sides derive revenue from the mining, there is little incentive for them to enforce mining regulations. Corruption also contributes to lax enforcement.
The civilian government ousted by the army last year suspended new jade mining licenses and renewals in 2016. The last license expired in 2020, so mining activity after that is unauthorized, or at least not allowed under publicly disclosed licensing.
However, between 20 and 50 mining companies are operating illegal mines, said an activist with a civil society group in Hpakant who also asked for anonymity for safety reasons.
Another resident described the effect of the landslide as resembling a loaf of bread that had been cut in half.
“The waste hill is very high. It looks like two or three overlapping mountains,” said the resident, who also spoke on condition of anonymity. He said he had been told by a mining company official that 15 bodies had been recovered from the site.
In July 2020, at least 162 people died in a landslide in the same area, while a November 2015 accident killed 113 people who were asleep in the middle of the night. In December last year, at least five people died and about 70 others were missing in another landslide in Hpakant. It is difficult to recover bodies because of the volume of earth under which many are buried.
Most scavengers are unregistered migrants from other areas, making it hard to determine exactly how many people are missing after such accidents, and in many cases leaving the relatives of the dead in their home villages unaware of their fate.