At least 162 people were killed Thursday in a landslide at a jade mine in northern Myanmar, the worst in a series of deadly accidents at such sites in recent years.
The Myanmar Fire Service Department, which coordinates rescues and other emergency services, announced about 12 hours after the morning disaster that 162 bodies were recovered from the landslide in Hpakant, 950 kilometers north of Myanmar’s biggest city, Yangon.
“The jade miners were smothered by a wave of mud,which hit after heavy rainfall” the Fire Service said. It said 54 injured people were taken to hospitals. An unknown number of people are feared missing.
Myanmar’s jade trade is reported to be worth more than US$30bn (£24bn) a year and Hpakant, a rough and remote area in Kachin state is the site of the world’s biggest jade mine.
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.
Video of the incident shows a massive landslide pouring into a large flooded pit or lake.
Maung Khaing, a 38-year-old miner, told Reuters 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.”
Hundreds of people gather at mines to sift through rubble discarded from lorries, hoping to find jade stones.
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,mainly people who scavenge for stones.
“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 the BBC.
“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.”
The BBC’s Jonathan Head in Bangkok says 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.
He says 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.
Swedish watchdog Swedwatch, has recently reported that Myanmar’s poorly regulated jade mines help finance a long-running conflict between the army and armed ethnic groups, and the industry contributed to land degradation, water pollution and landslides that kill hundreds of people each year. (Source: BBC/Swedwatch)