Hopes fade as Myanmar mine landslide toll tops 100

AFP , Monday 23 Nov 2015

Myanmar landslide
Mine workers carrying their belongings walk after their houses were destroyed by a landslide in Phakant jade mine, Kachin State, Myanmar Nov. 21, 2015 (Photo: AP)

Rescuers were searching for victims of a huge mine landslide in northern Myanmar Monday as the toll passed 100 in a disaster highlighting the perils of the country's secretive billion-dollar jade trade.

Authorities in the remote town of Hpakant, the epicentre of the world's production of highly valuable jade, have pulled scores of bodies from the earth since a huge mountain of debris collapsed onto dozens of flimsy shacks early on Saturday morning.

While recovery operations continue, desperate rescuers have little hope of finding survivors with only dead bodies pulled from the rubble on Monday.

Those killed are thought to be mainly itinerant workers, who scratch a living picking through the piles of waste left by large-scale industrial mining firms in the hope of stumbling across a previously missed hunk of jade that will deliver them from poverty.

"First we kept the bodies in Hpakant hospital but there were so many it could not hold them all so we arranged to burn them at the cemetery," said Dashi Naw Lawn, of Kachin Network Development Foundation, a community group helping with the search.

Hpakant Township Administrator Tint Swe Myint said the total toll had risen to 113, with eight more bodies retrieved from the rubble on Monday.

"We will go on searching tomorrow," he told AFP.

Officials in the area have said they do not know precisely how many people are missing because they did not have figures for the number of workers living in the ad hoc slum area.

But Monday's state-backed Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper said "many more people are still missing" after the accident.

The landslide is thought to be the deadliest in recent memory in the hard to reach and impoverished area of northern Kachin state bordering China, where locals say scores of workers have died this year alone in frequent landslides.

Myanmar is the source of virtually all of the world's finest jadeite, a near-translucent green stone that is enormously prized in neighbouring China, where it is known as the "stone of heaven".

The Hpakant landscape has been turned into a moonscape of environmental destruction as firms use ever-larger diggers to claw the precious stone from the ground.

But while mining firms -- many linked to the junta-era military elite -- are thought to be raking in huge sums, local people complain they are shut out from the bounty.

In an October report, advocacy group Global Witness estimated that the value of Myanmar jade produced in 2014 alone was $31 billion and said the trade might be "biggest natural resource heist in modern history".

Much of the best jade thought to be smuggled directly to China.

With little help from authorities, Hpakant community groups have pooled limited resources to help workers injured in the accidents which have become commonplace as the diggers creep closer to villages.

Heroin and methamphetamine are also easily and cheaply available on Hpakant's dusty streets, a side effect of Myanmar's massive narcotics trade.

Locals have launched desperate campaigns to try to persuade Myanmar's quasi-civilian government, which replaced outright military rule in 2015, to force mining firms to curtail their rapidly expanding operations.

But their pleas have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy swept landmark November 8 elections and will form a new government early next year.

But it has not yet outlined any firm plans for the jade trade beyond pledges for a more equitable allocation of profits from the country's natural resources.

NLD spokesman Win Htein told AFP that some party members were helping out with search and rescue operations at the site.

"It is our duty to help the country when we can," he said.

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