99 killed in landslide at Myanmar mining site

Rescue workers collecting bodies of people killed in the landslide on Saturday in the jade-mining area of Hpakant, in Myanmar's Kachin state. Hpakant produces some of the world's highest-quality jade but its mines and dump sites for debris are rife w
Rescue workers collecting bodies of people killed in the landslide on Saturday in the jade-mining area of Hpakant, in Myanmar's Kachin state. Hpakant produces some of the world's highest-quality jade but its mines and dump sites for debris are rife with hazards and landslides are not uncommon, though rarely this deadly.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Dozens of shanty huts crushed; death toll likely to rise with 100 more still missing

YANGON • Nearly 100 bodies have been pulled from a landslide near a jade mine in Myanmar's war-torn northern Kachin state and an estimated 100 people are still missing, a rescue official said.

The landslide happened in the early hours of Saturday in Hpakant, an area that produces some of the world's highest-quality jade but where the mines and dump sites for debris are rife with hazards and landslides are not uncommon, though rarely this deadly.

The disaster happened at about 3.30am local time (5am Singapore time) and lasted just a couple of minutes, said Mr Zaw Moe Htet, a gems trader whose village overlooks the devastated area.

"Even people living in villages farther away could hear the cries of those who rushed to the scene," he told Agence France-Presse.

Video footage of the area shot on Saturday shows men carrying several bodies slung in blankets as a crowd in a dusty plain near the village of Sai Tung watched.

Those killed were thought to have been mainly itinerant miners, who scratch a living scavenging through mountains of waste rubble dumped by mechanical diggers used by mining companies at the centre of a secretive multi-billion-dollar jade industry.

The massive landslide crushed dozens of shanty huts, home to an unknown number of people.

The state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said yesterday that many of the miners were sleeping in the huts when the landslide occurred.

An official with the Hpakant Township Fire Brigade told Reuters by telephone yesterday that 99 bodies had been recovered by late yesterday afternoon and that this number was likely to rise.

"We are sure the death toll will go up since many are still missing," he said.

The official, who asked not to be named because he was not authorised to speak to the media, said the accident occurred near a mining site controlled by Triple One Jade Mining.

It was unclear as to what triggered the landslide in the remote and mountainous region, which is almost entirely off-limits to foreigners.

A lawmaker also confirmed the figure. Mr Zaw Htay, a senior official from the President's Office, said rescue efforts were being carried out by the local authorities.

Officials said they have little hope of pulling people out from under the rubble alive.

"We are seeing only dead bodies," said Ms Nilar Myint, an official with the local administrative authorities in Hpakant. She added that because the men were mostly migrant workers, the authorities were struggling to identify those killed.

Myanmar's jade industry is extremely opaque and much of the jade mined in Hpakant is believed to be smuggled to China, where the stone is highly valued.

According to researchers from environmental advocacy group Global Witness, the value of jade production in Myanmar is estimated to have been as much as US$31 billion (S$44 billion) last year.

Many of the jade mines are connected to government officials, members of armed ethnic groups and cronies with close ties to the former military government, the group found.

Safety measures at the mines and surrounding dumping sites are minimal.

"These crony-owned mining companies piled this giant mine dump near the village without any consideration for the safety of the village," the fire official said.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 23, 2015, with the headline '99 killed in landslide at Myanmar mining site'. Print Edition | Subscribe