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Landslide kills more than 100 in "dystopian wasteland" of Myanmar's jade mines

Myanmar Mining Accident
People gather near the bodies of victims of a landslide near a jade mining area in Hpakant, Kachin state, northern Myanmar, July 2, 2020. Zaw Moe Htet/AP

Yangon, Myanmar — At least 113 people were killed Thursday in a landslide at a jade mine in northern Myanmar, the government and rescue workers said. It was the latest in a series of deadly accidents at the sites in recent years.

A statement from the Ministry of Information gave the death toll as 116, while Khin Maung Win, chairman of the Thingaha rescue group working at the site, said the number of the dead surpassed 113.

Khin Maung Myint, a lawmaker from Hpakant, where the accident occurred, said 54 people were injured and sent to hospitals.

Photos showed a crowd in the rain gathered around corpses wrapped in blue-and-red plastic sheets laid in a row on the ground.

The Hpakant area in Kachin state is 600 miles north of Myanmar's biggest city, Yangon, and is the center of the world's biggest and most lucrative jade mining industry.

Jade mine collapses following a landslide in Hpakant
People carry a dead body following a landslide at a mining site in Hpakant, Kachin state, Myanmar, July 2, 2020, in this picture obtained from social media. MYANMAR FIRE SERVICES DEPARTMENT

A November 2015 accident also left 113 dead and was considered the country's worst. In that case, the victims died when a 200-foot-high mountain of earth and waste discarded by several mines tumbled in the middle of the night, enveloping more than 70 huts below in which the miners slept.

The victims of such accidents are usually freelance miners who settle near giant mounds of discarded earth that has been excavated by heavy machinery. The freelancers who scavenge for bits of jade usually work and live at the base of the mounds of earth, which become particularly unstable during the rainy season.

Most scavengers are unregistered migrants from other areas, making it hard to determine exactly how many people are actually missing after such accidents and in many cases leaving the relatives of the dead in their home villages unaware of their fate.

Local activists have complained that the profitability of jade mining led businesses and the government to neglect enforcing already very weak regulations in the industry.

According to Global Witness, a London-based group that investigates misuse of revenues from natural resources, the industry generated about $31 billion in 2014, with most of the wealth going to individuals and companies tied to Myanmar's former military rulers. Global Witness made its estimate in a detailed report, and more recent reliable figures are not readily available.

"Large companies, many of them owned by families of former generals, army companies, cronies and drug lords, are making tens or hundreds of millions of dollars a year through their plunder of Hpakant," Mike Davis of Global Witness said when the group released its report in 2015.

Local people look on in a jade mine where the mud dam collapsed in Hpakant
Local people look on in a jade mine where the mud dam collapsed in Hpakant, Kachin state, Myanmar, April 23, 2019. REUTERS

"Their legacy to local people is a dystopian wasteland in which scores of people at a time are buried alive in landslides," said Davis.

Jade mining also plays a role in the decades-old struggle of ethnic minority groups in Myanmar's borderlands to take more control of their own destiny.

The area where members of the Kachin minority are dominant is poverty stricken despite hosting lucrative deposits of rubies as well as jade.

The Kachin believe they are not getting a fair share of the profits from deals that the central government makes with mining companies that critics charge are cronies of the military — a major player in the country's administration.

Kachin guerrillas have engaged in intermittent but occasionally heavy combat with government troops.

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