More than 120 dead in Myanmar jade mine landslide

Hpakant (Myanmar) (AFP) –


The battered bodies of more than 120 jade miners were pulled from a sea of mud after a landslide in northern Myanmar on Thursday after one of the worst-ever accidents to hit the treacherous industry.

Scores die each year while working in the country's lucrative but poorly regulated jade industry, which uses low-paid migrant workers to scrape out a gem highly coveted in China.

The disaster struck after heavy rainfall pounded the open-cast mines, close to the Chinese border in Kachin state, where billions of dollars of jade is believed to be scoured each year from bare hillsides.

Scores "were smothered by a wave of mud," the Myanmar Fire Services Department said in a Facebook post.

Working throughout the day to pull bodies out, "the total death toll so far is 126," it said.

"Search and rescue process is still ongoing."

Photos shared by the Myanmar military news site showed mud-slaked and bloodied bodies of miners laid out in grim rows under tarpaulins, some missing shoes as a result of the force of the wall of mud which hit them.

They had apparently defied a warning not to work the mines during the monsoon rains, local police told AFP.

Kyaw Min, a village leader, told AFP some survivors were pulled from the treacly mud before rescue efforts were suspended because of more rain.

The workers were scavenging for gemstones on the sharp mountainous terrain in Hpakant township, where furrows from earlier excavations had already loosened the earth.

- Chinese demand -

Myanmar is one of the world's biggest sources of jadeite and the industry is largely driven by insatiable demand for the translucent green gem from neighbouring China.

The mines are mired in secrecy, although environmental watchdog Global Witness allegeso perators are linked to former junta figures, the military elite, and their cronies.

"Powerful crony and military-linked companies have evaded responsibility for social and environmental abuses in Hpakant," said Global Witness' Hanna Hindstrom, calling the disaster "avoidable".

The watchdog estimated that the industry was worth some $31 billion in 2014, although very little reaches state coffers.

The mine where Thursday's accident happened belongs to the Yadanar Kyay company, according to the military's official news site.

Police said the death toll could have been even higher if authorities had not warned people to stay away from the mining pits the day before.

Landslides in the area are common, especially during Myanmar's notoriously severe monsoon season, and a major slip in November 2015 left more than 100 dead.

Another buried more than 50 workers last year.

The workers combing through the earth are often from impoverished ethnic minority communities who are looking for scraps left behind by big firms.

Low-quality stones can be exchanged for food or sold for $20 to waiting brokers.

But workers to risk their lives daily in the hope of hitting the jackpot -- a good quality jadeite that could fetch tens of thousands of dollars, changing their lives.

Northern Myanmar's abundant natural resources -- including jade, timber, gold and amber -- help finance both sides of a decades-long civil war between ethnic Kachin insurgents and the military.

The fight to control the mines and the revenues frequently traps local civilians in the middle.