RANGOON — Local authorities have confirmed at least four deaths after a rockslide on Tuesday buried small-scale miners at a jade mine in Hpakant, Kachin State, home to Burma’s richest deposits of the precious stone.
The search for bodies began on Wednesday, with a local rescue team uncovering the fourth body on Thursday afternoon.
Myo Thant Aung, the deputy director of the Hpakant Township administrative office, told The Irrawaddy that search efforts would continue.
“Four bodies—two men and two women who were small-scale miners—have been found so far, but we cannot tell how many are still missing as we have not yet received any reports about missing persons,” he said.
The local official said township authorities had requested that nearby communities contact them if any of their family members are unaccounted for. Earlier on Thursday, Reuters quoted an anonymous employee of a mining company in Hpakant as saying the death toll could climb as high as 50 people.
Thousands of illegal small-scale miners, also known as hand-pickers, have combed through Hpakant’s famed jade mines for years, seeking fortune—or merely eking out a livelihood—from the prized green stones. Large-scale mining in the area was suspended for security reasons in 2011, but were allowed to resume in September of last year.
Myo Thant Aung said authorities had also met with survivors of the rockslide, who live in nine temporary shops that have sprung up to cater to the basic needs of hand-pickers. The shops are located near piles of mining waste, some of which tower 200 to 300 feet in height.
Three companies involved in mining in the area and a handful of social organizations on Thursday donated rice sacks and 350,000 kyats (US$350) to each of the families of the victims.
The four victims identified so far are all ethnic Arakanese, including two women, Ma Sein Htay, 35, and Thida Soe, 21. Both women and the two male victims—Nay Lin, 20, and Myo Naing, 23—migrated to the jade mines of Hpakant from western Arakan State.
“The pile of rocks overwhelmed them while they were doing small-scale work in the late afternoon [on Tuesday],” said Myo Thant Aung.
The rockslide occurred at a site where earthen waste is piled by the three private companies that donated to the victims’ families—the mining firms Unity, Wai and Yadana Sein Thiri. The jade mining camp is located about three miles from the town of Hpakant.
Rockslides, a frequent occurrence in Hpakant, are estimated by some to have caused more than 100 deaths over the past half-decade.
Small-scale mining is technically illegal in Hpakant, but Myo Thant Aung said the practice is tolerated to an extent by local authorities and companies mining in the area, realizing that a strict ban would leave many without a means of earning a living.