Myanmar mudslide: Battle to find bodies of dozens of miners

Vehicles and debris scattered in a ravine after massive flooding in Amanzimtoti near Durban, South Africa, on Tuesday.
Search and rescue personnel looking for missing miners at a jade mine following a mudslide in Hpakant on Tuesday. By nightfall that day, only three bodies out of 54 miners reportedly buried in the mudslide had been recovered, said a police officer from Hpakant township.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

YANGON • Recovery teams in Myanmar fought against a huge lake of sludge yesterday in their search for bodies after a mudslide engulfed more than 50 jade miners - the latest fatal accident in a notoriously dangerous but highly lucrative industry.

Dozens die each year in landslides caused by jade mining, a poorly regulated industry rife with corruption.

The latest disaster struck the jade mine in Hpakant township in northern Kachin state late on Monday night.

Police initially described how a "mud lake" buried 54 miners - all feared dead - while they were sleeping, although they said yesterday that the men had been working a night shift at the time.

By nightfall on Tuesday, only three bodies had been recovered, a police officer from Hpakant township, who asked not to be named, told Agence France-Presse (AFP).

"Searching in the mud is difficult - it's not like soil," he added.

The site is mined by two companies: Myanmar Thura Gems and Shwe Nagar Koe Kaung.

Search and rescue personnel looking for missing miners at a jade mine following a mudslide in Hpakant on Tuesday. By nightfall that day, only three bodies out of 54 miners reportedly buried in the mudslide had been recovered, said a police officer fr
Vehicles and debris scattered in a ravine after massive flooding in Amanzimtoti near Durban, South Africa, on Tuesday. PHOTO: GAVIN WELSH/REUTERS

Myanmar Thura Gems director Hla Soe Oo told AFP by phone that the company was "helping the families identify the victims' bodies".

The open jade mines in Hpakant township have turned the landscape into a vast moonscape-like terrain of barren hills and vast valleys of dirt scoured by companies for the precious gems.

Impoverished ethnic communities often scavenge the terrain for scraps left behind by the big firms - and are frequently the main victims of landslides.

But police said there were "no informal workers" on the site at the time of this mudslide.

Dozens were swept away by a landslide in Hpakant last year and at least 120 were buried in 2015 after the collapse of a mound of tailings, a mud-like waste by-product of mining.

The jade industry is largely driven by insatiable demand from neighbouring China, where the translucent green gemstone has long been prized.

Watchdog Global Witness estimated the industry was worth some US$31 billion (S$42.2 billion) in 2014, although very little reaches the state coffers.

Meanwhile in South Africa, 51 people were killed in the southern and eastern parts after heavy rain caused flooding and mudslides.

Rescue workers were digging through collapsed homes and other buildings in the coastal areas of KwaZulu-Natal province for survivors, local officials said yesterday.

 

The region has been hit by heavy rain for days, but the authorities did not anticipate the extent of the downpour late on Monday, said Mr Lennox Mabaso, a spokesman for the provincial Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs department.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NYTIMES, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2019, with the headline 'Myanmar mudslide: Battle to find bodies of dozens of miners'. Print Edition | Subscribe