At least 162 bodies have been found after a landslide at a jade mining site in northern Myanmar, officials say. Rescue work has continued all day for people still missing at the site in the Hpakant area of Kachin state. A wave of mud and rock triggered by heavy rain engulfed those collecting stones, the fire service said.
Myanmar is the world’s biggest source of jade but its mines have seen numerous accidents, many involving people who scavenge for stones. The country’s fire service department said in a Facebook post (in Burmese): “The jade miners were smothered by a wave of mud, which hit after heavy rainfall.”
It said that by 19:15 local time (12:45 GMT) “162 bodies were found and 54 injured people were taken [to hospital]”. No figure was given for the number of people still missing. Kachin state’s minister of social affairs, Dashi La Seng, told BBC Burmese: “All of a sudden… huge amounts of mud together with rainwater ran into the pit. It was like a tsunami.”
Heavy rain continued all day during the rescue work. Police said some people had defied a warning issued on Wednesday not to work in the area after the rainfall, although the advice may also have saved many lives.
Maung Khaing, a 38-year-old miner, told that he saw a towering pile of waste close to collapse and people were shouting “run, run”. He said: “Within a minute, all the people at the bottom [of the hill] just disappeared. I feel empty in my heart… There were people stuck in the mud shouting for help but no-one could help them.”
Rescuers worked all day at the scene, where more people were reported missing
The rubble creates large slopes that can be dangerous in an area denuded of trees and resembling a moonscape. More than 100 people died last year alone at mining sites.
Myanmar’s jade trade is reported to be worth more than $30bn (£24bn) a year. Hpakant is the site of the world’s biggest jade mine.
“Searching for precious stones is traditionally the only job for the people in this area. They have no other choice of livelihood,” local resident Shwe Thein told .
“They will mine by any means whether they have an official permit or not. Although the mudslides keep happening, many organisations, including armed groups, involved in jade mining are saying the situation here is good. So it’s difficult for the outside world to know the real situation here.”
A new gemstone mining law was passed last year, but critics say the government has too few inspectors with only limited authority to stop illegal practices. The campaigners have accused the military, drug dealers, insurgent groups and Chinese business interests of controlling the jade trade and preventing a safer and more sustainable exploitation of the valuable gemstone.