At least 23 people are dead and 80 are missing 11 days after a landslide at a jade mine in Myanmarâ€™s Kachin state, but junta officials and the mineâ€™s operators have yet to confirm the casualties and are seeking to keep the incident under wraps, aid workers and residents said Friday.
The landslide occurred on Feb. 28 in Hpakant townshipâ€™s Mat Lin Gyaung village at a quarry that is jointly run by private firms Myanmar National Co. and Shan Yoma Co., according to sources. Jade mining has been illegal in Hpakant since 2019, but many companies defy the ban, and operations have increased in the area since the military seized power in a Feb. 1, 2021 coup.
On March 3, the military announced that no one had been killed in the incident, but two days later aid workers and family members of miners told RFAâ€™s Myanmar Service that authorities had recovered the bodies of 23 people and buried them at the nearby Mat Lin Gyaung Cemetery.
An official with a Hpakant-based aid group, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Friday that the companies and security forces had so far blocked search and rescue teams from entering the area because they want to cover up the severity of the landslide and because the operation is illegal.
â€œAmong those [who remain] missing are scavengers, drivers, supervisors, company staff â€“ altogether there are about 80 people,â€ he said.
â€œ[Authorities] have blocked the road to stop aid workers from entering the area. No cars are allowed and were turned back. Landslides occur frequently here. Stopping rescue teams and aid workers is hard to understand. In other words, itâ€™s a kind of a news blackout.â€
The aid worker said that the 23 bodies recovered from the quarry should have been sent to Hpakant Hospital for autopsies but were instead instantly buried by authorities. He said that after 11 days, those still missing are assumed dead.
Meanwhile, Myanmar National Co. and Shan Yoma Co. have yet to release the exact number of dead and missing.
The aunt of a young scavenger who went missing at the quarry said the companies had not officially notified any families regarding the deaths or the accident. She said that relatives only learned of the landslide from others in the community and were left to investigate on their own.
â€œI wonâ€™t be able to see my boy if I donâ€™t go now. Weâ€™ll have to try to find his body on our own, but we wonâ€™t give up,â€ she said.
â€œ[The authorities] don’t want to search anymore and so they will say no [if asked for help]. In fact, only about a third of the parents may have heard their kids were killed or injured in the accident because the companies didnâ€™t tell them … If we waited for them to notify us, we would have never known the truth.â€
While the woman did not provide details about her nephew, citing security concerns, she told RFA that all 23 of those confirmed dead in the landslide were under the age of 30.
She said that upon entering the site after learning of her nephewâ€™s death it was clear to her that conditions at the mine were unnecessarily dangerous.
â€œThe pile of waste soil is too high. We saw it only when we went there after the landslide â€¦ If we had known this before the landslide, weâ€™d have stopped my nephew from working with this company,â€ she said.
â€œWhen the waste soil is piled too high, it collapses under pressure. At the bottom of the pile is where they have the â€˜veinâ€™ and it has produced a lot of raw jade, we heard. I don’t know if they didnâ€™t understand the dangers or if they ignored them because of greed.â€
The womanâ€™s nephew, who graduated high school recently, had only been working at the mine for three months and was earning around 300,000 kyats (U.S. $170) a month.
She said several Hpakant-based aid groups arrived at the site shortly after the accident on Feb. 28, but company officials did not to let them carry out rescue work.
Attempts by RFA to reach officials from Myanmar National Co. and Shan Yoma Co. went unanswered on Friday. Junta Deputy Information Minister Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun was also unavailable for comment.
An environmental activist in Hpakant said the operation is being covered up was because the companies do not want to pay compensation to the families of the victims. He urged the junta to hold them accountable.
â€œThey obviously do not want to pay compensation, because the bodies of the dead workers were dug up and all of them were buried atÂ Mat Lin Gyaung Cemetery,â€ he said.
â€œTo put it simply, they must be worried the incident would become public if relief groups were involved in the rescue work â€¦ In the meantime, as this is a transitional period, no one is going to act. This is also a time of opportunity for [the companies to evade the law because of the political turmoil â€¦ [and] weak rule of law.â€
RFA also spoke on Friday with Kachin Independence Army (KIA) spokesman Col. Naw Bu, whose ethnic armed group has taken control of some of the jade quarries in Hpakant, but he said he was unaware of the details.
Popular mining area
Aung Hein Min, a former lawmaker with the deposed National League for Democracy (NLD) in Hpakant, said that about 90 percent of all jade in Myanmar was being produced illegally by the end of 2020, as jade mining licenses had not been renewed under the NLD after it won the countryâ€™s election in November that year.
He said the site of the Feb. 28 accident used to produce precious minerals and has seen several landslides and deaths since the coup.
â€œYTT Hill, as it is known in the area, is a good site to find good quality jade. It contains a very good vein. The stones are of good quality and big chunks weighing tons have been found,â€ he said, noting that the second largest jade every mined came from the site.
Aung Hein Min said illegal mining is no widespread around YTT Hill, and safety measures are particularly lax.
â€œIn the past, there were groups to oversee quarrying work and rising waste mounds,â€ he said.
â€œNow thatâ€™s history. There are no such groups. Everyone tries to dig as much as they can and its a free-for-all. So, the likelihood of landslides is increasing day by day.â€
Residents say mining rights in Hpakant, which were revoked in 2019 under the NLD government, were reactivated in 2021 after companies began paying taxes to the junta and the KIA.
Two landslides occurred in Hpakant in December last year due to unregulated mining, leaving a total of around 80 scavengers missing. And in May 2020, a landslide in Hpakantâ€™s Hway-kha-Hmaw area killed hundreds of inexperienced miners and scavengers.
In July last year, a report published by international NGO Global Witness said that Myanmarâ€™s military and those in its highest ranks were able to enrich themselves by looking the other way during the NLDâ€™s ban, and that the junta has post-coup threatened to â€œfurther open the floodgates of military corruption in the jade industry.â€
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.
Reported by RFAâ€™s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.