New landslide sweeps through Myanmar jade mine

Rescuers were searching through mud and rubble on Saturday after a new landslide buried workers -- possibly dozens -- in a remote jade mining region in northern Myanmar, the second such incident in just over a month.

The landslide took place on Friday afternoon in Hpakant, Kachin State, the war-torn area that is the epicentre of Myanmar's secretive billion dollar jade industry.

"The rescue process has now started and we are searching for dead bodies but we can't tell the numbers yet," Nilar Myint, an official from Hpakant Administrative Office, told AFP.

An AFP photographer on the scene said mechanical diggers had been brought in to sift through a huge pile of debris that had slid down a steep hillside.

Locals report as many as 50 people might have been buried by the wall of mud and stones.

But a second official involved in the rescue operation downplayed that number.

"According to what officials from nearby villages have told us, just three or four people are missing at the moment," Myo Thet Aung, also from the Hpakant Administrative Office, told AFP.

By mid-afternoon Saturday officials said they still had not found any bodies.

The same area was hit by a massive landslide last month that killed more than 100 people. Locals says dozens more have died throughout the year in smaller accidents.

The region is remote, with little phone coverage and poor roads making it difficult to obtain precise and swift data after such incidents.

Those killed in landslides are mainly itinerant workers who scratch a living picking through the piles of waste left by large-scale industrial mining firms in the hope of stumbling across a previously missed hunk of jade that will deliver them from poverty.

- Demand from China -

Myanmar is the source of virtually all of the world's finest jadeite, a near-translucent green stone that is enormously prized in neighbouring China, where it is known as the "stone of heaven".

The Hpakant landscape has been turned into a moonscape of environmental destruction as firms use ever-larger diggers to claw the precious stone from the ground.

But while mining firms -- many linked to the junta-era military elite -- are thought to be raking in huge sums, local people complain they are shut off from the bounty.

In an October report, advocacy group Global Witness estimated that the value of Myanmar jade produced in 2014 alone was $31 billion and said the trade might be the "biggest natural resource heist in modern history".

Much of the best jade is thought to be smuggled directly to China.

With little help from authorities, Hpakant community groups have pooled limited resources to help workers injured in the accidents which have become commonplace as the diggers creep closer to villages.

Heroin and methamphetamine are also easily and cheaply available on Hpakant's dusty streets, a side effect of Myanmar's massive narcotics trade.

Locals have launched desperate campaigns to try to persuade Myanmar's quasi-civilian government, which replaced outright military rule in 2015, to force mining firms to curtail their rapidly expanding operations.

But their pleas have so far fallen on deaf ears.

Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy swept landmark November 8 elections and will form a new government early next year.

But it has not yet outlined any firm plans for the jade trade beyond pledges for a more equitable allocation of profits from the country's natural resources.

Analysts say reform will be difficult given the entrenched military interests in the trade and the remoteness of many of the mines, some of which are in the hands of ethnic rebel fighters.

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