UPDATED at 2:45 P.M. EST on 2021-12-22
At least one person is dead and around 80 people are missing Wednesday following an early morning landslide at a jade mine in Myanmar's Kachin state, where sources say illegal mining is rampant thanks to an “understanding” between miners and local authorities.
The disaster occurred at around 4:00 a.m. at a jade mining block near Thayar Gone village in Hpakant township, rescue workers told RFA's Myanmar Service, adding that only one body had been located so far.
Aye Mon, who resides near the site of the landslide, said the area had been crowded with miners overnight and believes at least 100 people are missing, including a few vendors she knows.
"The huge wave came in without warning. There are three or four vendors among the missing," she said.
"There were a lot of scavengers at the site yesterday, and about 30 or 40 vendors. The remaining crowd was later searching the area for the missing. The army and the police came to look at the scene of the accident and there were two or three relief teams.”
Naw Lawng, secretary of the Kachin National Social Development Organization, said most of the missing were miners.
"They were working in small blocks there. Most of them were scavengers working in the landfill where the waste soil was dumped," he said.
"It’s hard to say now exactly how many were involved because everything is covered in the sludge. We could just roughly say about 80 are there underneath. All the dumped waste has fallen into the water and it’s impossible to do the search right away.”
Residents said the plot was a former block of Sein Sein Gems Co., which closed down in 2019, and that some people who have an "understanding" with the authorities were digging around with heavy machinery.
Kaing Rein, a resident who witnessed the landslide, said it took away not just the scavengers but also the workers who were using pressure hoses to break up mounds of waste soil.
"When I heard people shouting ‘look out, it’s coming down,’ I took a quick look and saw about 10 people standing there in the water near the shore [of a nearby lake] yelling out. A few moments later they disappeared into the water and never came back. Just like that," she said.
"We … saw close to 40 people being swallowed up [by the sliding mud]. It couldn't have been fewer than 40. Some people said there were more than 100.”
Maung Maung Oo, a firefighter among the rescuers at the site, told RFA that the search was continuing.
"So far, we are just looking around the spots where these miners might be but haven't found anyone yet," he said. "A number of NGOs have also joined in the search with us.”
RFA tried to contact the Hpakant township administrator by telephone on Wednesday for details about the disaster, but he did not respond.
Cover of night
Jade mining in the area was banned in 2019 amid the coronavirus pandemic by the then-National League for Democracy (NLD) government but resumed after the party was deposed by the military in a Feb. 1 coup.
While it is unclear whether the mining is officially sanctioned by the junta, it largely takes place under the cover of night, and observers have warned that at its current rate many of the hills of the Hpakant area could soon be leveled.
“There’s so much activity at nighttime … it won’t take very long for the hills to disappear as they are digging like crazy,” Hpakant MP Aung Hein Min, who won the region for the NLD in the country’s November 2020 election, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“There was at least a bit of control in the past, but the situation has worsened as no one dares to stop them. There was barely any rule of law here in the past but now there is no law at all.”
According to Aung Hein Min, there were more than 180 private blocks where permits –issued under the NLD government – were valid until the end of July 2021.
He said that while there has been no official word of any extensions to these permits, the miners are “working with an ‘understanding’ with the authorities concerned” and now have grown beyond private individuals to groups using heavy machinery.
Additionally, while fighting between the military and the ethnic Kachin Independence Army (KIA) intensified in the Hpakant region since November, jade mining has continued unabated, he said.
In July, a report published by international NGO Global Witness said that Myanmar’s military and those in its highest ranks were able to enrich themselves by looking the other way during the NLD’s ban, and that the junta has post-coup threatened to “further open the floodgates of military corruption in the jade industry.”
Control over the multibillion-dollar jade trade was a major cause of conflict in Myanmar between the military and rebel armed ethnic groups and, in the years leading up to the coup, the military increased its stake in the jade trade at a time when the civilian-led government was trying to impose reforms on it, according to the report.
Global Witness said at the time that not only had the family of junta chief Snr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing profited from bribes from actors hoping to gain permission to mine jade, but its research showed that the military’s control of the trade “helped enable their recent illegal power grab.”
Naung Latt, an environmental activist in Hpakant, told RFA that mining had become so common in the area that “there are excavations every night and even some during the day.”
“They are using hundreds of heavy machines,” he said.
Drying up demand
Despite the relentless activity, Naung Latt said demand has dried up since the junta cut off internet to the area in September and China closed its nearby border amid the pandemic.
U Maung, a trader in Mandalay, said that even the jade market in Mandalay had taken a hit in recent months due to the political chaos following the military coup and the pandemic.
“Before, one could expect three or four sales a day, but now they make just one sale in every four days to a week,” he said.
Prior to the coup, Hpakant had been the scene of rare cooperation between the military and its enemies, as they worked together to collect formal and informal taxes and ignored safety to extract jade as quickly as possible in the face of quickly expiring mining licenses.
Wednesday's deadly landslide marked the second in four days. At least 10 people were killed on Dec. 19 when a jade mine collapsed in Hpakant's Manamaw area at around 2:00 a.m.
Tragedy also struck in Hpakant on July 2, 2020, when heavy rains caused piles of loose dirt and rubble to collapse, burying more than 200 scavengers looking for discarded pieces of jade left behind by miners, and creating a “lake of mud” filled with bodies.
At least 174 people died, with 100 left missing and 54 injured in the mudslide.
Last year on May 23, a similar landslide in Hpakant’s Hway Kha Hmaw area killed hundreds of jade scavengers. And on Nov 21, 2015, 114 people were killed when a plot of land belonging to a company in Hpakant's Seikmu village collapsed.
Post-coup illegal mining in Kachin state has not been limited to jade, but also gold and rare earth minerals.
Successive governments have failed to regulate the mining industry and, as a result, illegal mining in the region has existed for generations. Environmentalists and ethnic Kachin residents say they are concerned that such activities will become more widespread if the current political situation continues.
— Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.