WAI HKA, HPAKANT, Kachin State – Fourteen people are confirmed dead, with six people injured and many more still missing after a slag heap collapsed at a jade mine in Kachin State’s Hpakant Township in northern Myanmar early Friday morning.
Between 30 and 50 people are believed to have been buried when the mound of debris from the mine collapsed at around 4 am in Wai Hka village, Seik Mu village tract.
Rescue workers had retrieved 14 bodies by Friday afternoon, according to local residents and rescue workers. A total of eight injured people were taken to Hpakant Hospital, two of whom later died of their injuries, said U Shwe Thein, the NLD chairman of Seik Mu village. Conflicting reports on the precise death toll were being published Friday evening.
Ko Aung Myint San, who has been working as an informal mine worker in the jade mines for a decade, told The Irrawaddy that he was among the lucky ones, as he had decided not go to scavenging for stones on Friday morning. He said, “We usually go and wait at the worksite until the company workers take their break. Soldiers guarding the site allow us to search for stones at certain times. This morning, the cliff collapsed in a landslide.”
Home to more than 30,000 people, Wai Hka village is surrounded by mines. U Shwe Thein said Friday’s disaster occurred in an area that was once the region’s highest mountain, but which was now riddled with holes and mineshafts, some more than 1,000 feet in depth.
An officer on duty at Hpakant police station said the rescue effort was ongoing, but the search was being hampered by rain. The victims are believed to have been informal, self-employed prospectors, or “hand-pickers”, searching for pieces of jade at a site operated by a licensed company. They were not on the slag heap itself, according to the officer.
The worksites involved are Sein Shwe War Co.’s site No. 443 and Kyauk Myat Shwe Pyi Co.’s site No. 558. Many of the victims were males in their 20s. The youngest confirmed so far was 18 and the oldest 45.
Ying Hkawng, the chairman of the Green Land environmental group based in Hpakant, said, “The landslide happened when the company halted work at 4 am and the informal mine workers came to pick over the site for jade. The 14 recovered bodies are now in the hands of local funeral service operators. They will wait for three days for family members to come and retrieve the bodies. Social organizations will cremate those victims whose bodies are not claimed.”
Wai Hka village experienced a previous dumpsite collapse in May 2016, in which 12 prospectors died, 13 were injured and a number of people remain unaccounted for.
According to local residents, workers at many of Hpakant’s jade mines are at risk of being buried alive under slag heaps, some of which are hundreds of feet high. Many of the mines are secured by Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) troops and operated by companies backed by either the Tatmadaw or the Kachin Independence Army.
In March, a collapse occurred at the Kan Kham jade mine in La Maung village. The same mine was the site of a deadly landslide in November 2015 that claimed more than 100 lives.
Including Friday’s collapse, at least five such incidents have occurred at Hpakant’s slag heaps this year alone, killing dozens of scavengers searching for discarded pieces of jade.
Chit Min Tun contributed to this report.