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2 killed, 11 injured in Hpakant jade mine landslide

File photo from March 2015: 'Hand pickers’ ferret through mounds of upturned earth for small pieces of jade overlooked by the industrial operations (From DVB documentary 'Hpakant's jade curse')

Two freelance jade pickers have been buried under rubble and are presumed dead, while another 11 have been injured in the latest jade mine tragedy to hit the Kachin township of Hpakant.

According to a local charity group spokesperson, the incident occurred on Wednesday evening at an open-pit mine near the town of Seikmu, where pickers (or “scavengers” as they are generally known) were sifting through rubble looking for scraps of jade. A huge mound of excavated soil collapsed, burying the pickers.

According to unverified earlier reports, including a Burmese-language report by DVB, “dozens” or at least 50 jade scavengers were feared dead.

Khin Maung, the chairperson of local charity group Thinkara Social Assistance Organisation, told DVB yesterday that Hpakant township administrators and representatives of the mining companies involved at the pit near Seikmu held a press conference on Thursday to clarify the incident, following an inspection at the site.

“At the moment, we can confirm that only two men, a 39-year-old and a 45-year-old, have been reported as still missing. We presume they are dead as they have been buried under rubble for over a day,” said Khin Maung. “In addition, eleven people were injured; three of whom are currently in hospital.”

He called on the jade mining companies operating in the area – on the west bank of the Uru Creek – to take responsibility in preventing such accidents in the future.

Tin Soe, a National League for Democracy MP representing Hpakant in Burma’s Lower House, confirmed to DVB last night by telephone from the scene of the tragedy that two individuals remain unaccounted for.

“The mining company working at the site is Myanmar Tagaung, and we spoke with their supervisor,” Tin Soe said. “He said that one of their trucks was buried in the landslide, but they recovered the driver alive.”

He said that cracks are appearing on the remaining parts of the mound, indicating that further landslides are highly possible. He said that this fear has stalled efforts to recover the bodies of the two missing men.

Wednesday’s deaths are the latest in a series of fatal accidents and landslides at open-pit sites in and around Hpakant, one of the world’s most lucrative jade mines.

Around 50 mining companies operate in Hpakant, but the largely unregulated business also attracts thousands of itinerant workers, many of whom subsist by digging through the mountain-sized heaps of discarded earth in search of jade scraps. A vast majority of the jade from these sites is sold both legally and illegally to buyers across Burma’s northern border in China.

Soon after winning last year’s elections, the now-ruling National League for Democracy promised to do more to regulate Hpakant’s lawless jade mines after a landslide in November 2015 claimed nearly 200 lives. So far, however, no major attempt has been made by the new government to address the issue.

A recent report by international watchdog Global Witness estimated the rampantly corrupt and unregulated business to be worth some US$31 billion.