Hpakant Mine Disaster Villagers Fear More Landslides as Government Acknowledges Shortcomings

Following a deadly mudslide earlier this week at a mine in the Hpakant jade mining region of northern Myanmar’s Kachin state, local residents on Friday expressed concern about future landslides triggered by the collapse of mounds of cast-off earth and water and the possible destruction of their homes.

Fifty-four miners were buried along with 40 mining machines, including bulldozers and backhoes, when a lake of cast-off earth and water collapsed, triggering the slide late Monday night, sources told RFA’s Myanmar Service in an earlier report.

As of Wednesday, recovery teams had pulled four bodies from the sludge left by the mudslide, Agence France-Presse reported.

A Hpakant resident named Nwe said she and others who reside in the area are concerned that their homes will collapse in landslides during the monsoon season, which runs from late May through October.

I am really scared when it rains heavily, she said. I’m concerned for my kids. As an adult, I could escape from the disaster, but it’s not the case for the children. I am concerned my house will be washed away if the heavy rains cause further landslides.

Her home used to sit on smooth land, but landslides from the dumping of mining tailings in the area have caused its foundation to slide, New said.

You can see the land condition now, she said. I can no longer push up the building’s columns by placing stones against them.

Hpakant resident Tin Hla told RFA that the ground beneath houses near jade mines becomes unsteady whenever it rains.

The houses become shaky when it rains at night, she said. We are too scared to sleep at home since the ground beneath the house is already cracking. We tried propping up the house from below to keep it stable, but the more we prop it up, the more the land falls.

We don’t want to do the propping up anymore, she added. I want those who are responsible to repair the ground.

Since early February, houses in the area have become wobbly and now appear as if they are about to collapse from jade mining companies disposing slag, residents said.

Earlier, when these land plots were allotted by the authorities, these landslides didn’t occur, said Hpakant local Su Hlaing. Before these earthmovers disposed their mining waste around here, there were no landslides. There was no problem for one or two years before the dumping.

[But] the land began to collapse after the trucks started dumping their waste, because of the heavy weight of slag heaps pressing down the land beneath them, she said. Since the slag heaps have piled up slowly, they are now higher than the village, and one of them collapsed.

The dumping of tailings caused a landslide that flattened several homes in Seik Mu village tract in Ward No. 6 in 2017, locals said.

‘Happening all the time’

Residents said they have demanded that two companies stop dumping mining waste near their homes and repair damage caused by landslides before the arrival of the monsoon season.

Daung Say, administrator of Ward No. 6 where the residents live, said local authorities have asked the mining companies to repair homes.

We have asked the companies to repair houses damaged by the landslides, he said. They said we have to prop up the houses using longer columns to prevent a collapse.

Hpakant authorities requested that the companies not wait until the monsoon season arrives to do the work, Daung Say said.

If the houses totally collapse, the companies will be responsible for it, he said.

RFA was unable to reach the mining companies for comment.

Residents also said they submitted a formal compliant with the township administration office, but have not yet received a response.

We have instructed the township administrators to have people evacuate houses that have an immediate risk of collapse, Da Shi Lar Sai, Kachin state’s minster of natural resources and environmental conservation.

This is happening all the time, he said. Not just now.

Government has fallen short

Meanwhile, a Myanmar official said the government has fallen short when it comes to taking action against mining companies that violate industry regulations in Hpakant.

Myo Nyunt, spokesman for the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) party, said the Myanmar government is responsible for those who lost their lives in and those who are suffering from the latest disaster.

But we have a difficult time controlling these companies because most of them working in the Hpakant region have connections to the previous government, and they have a lot of money, he said.

When we try to control these companies, we can’t do as much as we want, he said. But, when we have this kind of tragedy, we have to do something to ensure accountability for the people who lost their lives, he said.

The government has been planning to amend the Gemstone Law, passed in December 2018, with regard to the granting of permission to small-scale miners, Myo Nyunt said.

After the law was passed, however, London-based international anti-corruption NGO Global Witness pointed to its absence of clear guidelines and strong enforcement mechanisms to prevent companies with histories of illegal activities and irresponsible mining practices from obtaining new mining licenses.

Than Zaw Oo, general manager of Myanmar Gems Enterprise, which organizes emporiums and special jade and gems sales, said many accidents have occurred in Hpakant because of shortcomings in the operations of jade companies themselves and in government departments that have to control the companies.

We have the Gemstone Law, but it does not cover enough, he said. The ministry might have its own plan [to control the companies], but we need to follow the ministry’s instructions.

Myanmar attorney Thein Thyan Oo said mine workers do not listen to officials who warn them about the dangers of slag heap collapses.

Authorities would stop the daily workers from searching for jade in the damp soil, but the workers did not listen to them because they needed money, he said.

If we have to blame something, then we must blame the poverty, he said. They will work anyway in the damp soil even though they know they can die.

Authorities must work on plans for developing businesses to fight poverty. Meanwhile, they need to do something to protect the workers.

Hpakant, which lies about 400 miles (640 kilometers) north of Myanmar’s capital Naypyidaw, is the center of country’s jade mining industry and produces some of the highest-quality jade in the world.

Much of the gem output is exported or smuggled to neighboring China, where demand for the precious stone is high.

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