By Aung Hla Tun
Dozens of people were feared dead in Myanmar after a landslide hit a jade mining region, workers at a local mining firm said, the second such incident in just over a month.
The landslide took place on Friday in Hpakant in the country’s northern Kachin State, a rugged region sandwiched between China and India and the heart of Myanmar’s multi-billion dollar jade industry controlled by its powerful military.
“We heard about 50 people were buried in the collapsed dump and four or five bodies were found this morning,” Sai Lon, who works at a jade mining company in the area, told Reuters on Saturday.
Police in Hpakant, in Mohnyin district, said the landslide took place on Friday afternoon but that they could not confirm casualties.
“We haven’t heard anything from the rescue team yet,” said a duty officer at Hpakant Township Police Station who declined to be named.
On Nov. 22, a massive landslide in the same mountainous area in Kachin State killed 114 people. The area produces some of the world’s highest-quality jade.
Deaths in Myanmar’s jade mines, where small time prospectors and massive firms vie for the precious stone, underscore the sector’s lax safety rules and lack of accountability.
Much of the jade mined in Hpakant is believed to be smuggled to neighbouring China, where the green stone is highly prized and is widely believed to bring wealth and longevity.
About 800 jade mining firms operate around the town, but activity is dominated by about 10 firms, mostly Chinese-led ventures, according to the Ministry of Mines.
Miners have been tearing into Myanmar’s northern hills in recent months, in a rush to excavate more jade from the world’s richest deposits of the gemstone before a new government, which has promised clean governance, takes office next year.
The rush has led to thousands of ethnic villagers being forced off their land.
The newly elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party said last month it plans to tighten control over jade mines.
A U.S. ban on Myanmar jade remains in place over concerns that jade mining benefits military figures and fuels corruption and rights abuses, despite Washington easing most of its ban on imports from the country after a quasi-civilian government took power in 2011 following five decades of military dictatorship.