November 24, 2015 / 8:10 AM / 2 years ago

New Myanmar government to tighten safety after jade mine disaster

HPAKANT, Myanmar (Reuters) - Myanmar’s newly elected government said on Tuesday it planned to tighten control over the country’s poorly regulated jade mines after a landslide swept through a mining encampment, resulting in at least 113 deaths and 100 people still missing.

People look for the bodies of miners killed by a landslide in Hpakant jade mine in Kachin state November 21, 2015. REUTERS/Stringer

A manager from the company that operates the mine in Myanmar’s remote north told Reuters a similar accident in 2010 killed 50-60 workers at another site run by the firm, underlining the lucrative industry’s lax safety rules.

Myint Aye was spared from the latest landslide, which struck while she was using the bathroom, but her son and husband were killed.

“I still cannot believe it,” she said. “When I came out from the toilet, everything was just gone, along with my husband and my son.”

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won a resounding victory in the country’s Nov. 8 polls.

But the new government could risk running up against powerful vested interests controlling Myanmar’s jade mines if it moves too forcefully to rein in their business.

The jade industry is dominated by companies linked to leaders of the previous military government, ethnic armies and businessmen with close connections to the former junta.

“We will have to review the existing regulations and if necessary will require the companies to have safe and adequate dump sites when they apply for licenses,” said Nyan Win, a senior member of the NLD and spokesman for the party.

The NLD will dominate the new parliament when it sits in February, although a quarter of seats are retained for unelected military officials.

The value of jade production in Myanmar is estimated at around $31 billion in 2014, according to researchers from environmental advocacy group Global Witness.

But the U.S. Treasury maintains a ban on imports of jade from the country and includes the industry among “specific activities and actors that contribute to human rights abuses and undermine Burma’s democratic reform process.”

SEARCH GOES ON

Rescue workers are still searching for some 100 missing people, having already recovered 113 bodies following the disaster at a jade mine at Hpakant, in Myanmar’s remote northern mountains.

The landslide was caused by a gigantic slag heap of debris excavated from mines, which subsided in the early hours of Saturday and slid over the makeshift settlement at its foot, burying miners as they slept.

The dump site is operated by Triple One Jade Mining Company, but several firms had used it for soil removed from mines.

Triple One dump site manager U Soe said the company was not responsible for the deaths, and that workers voluntarily chose to stay beneath the mountain of debris.

“It’s not the company’s fault,” U Soe said. “Migrant miners come and stay around the dump site because it is near and easy to find raw jade stones. If they stay here, they don’t need to rent a place.”

A similar accident happened at another dump site operated by Triple One about five years ago, U Soe said. That accident killed between 50 and 60 workers, he added.

General Thein Moe Tun, a military official for the Hpakant region, said another pile of debris had given way in 2014 in the near vicinity.

He said scores of people died in that accident and their bodies were not recovered. Migrant workers had been ordered away to nearby villages but refused to move, he added.

“The company will not be stopped from using this dump site,” he said. “It is not their fault.”

Poorly paid workers, many of them migrants from other parts of the country, work in the mines or pick over dump sites for pieces of the semi-precious stone that have been left behind.

Ye Htut, spokesman for the President’s Office, said safety procedures put in place by the state government following previous landslides were not followed and the national government would need to take a more active role in enforcing them.

Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun and Timothy McLaughlin in YANGON; Editing by Simon Webb and Mike Collett-White

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