Tue, 04 Aug 2020

A Myanmar government team sent to the jade-rich Hpakant area of Kachin state to investigate a deadly mine landslide barely sought local input during a brief tour of the disaster zone, disappointed residents said Monday.

Heavy rains caused piles of loose dirt and rubble to collapse on July 2, killing at least 200 scavengers looking for discarded pieces of jade left behind by miners and creating "lake of mud" full of bodies with some still missing.

A six-member team investigative body led by Ohn Win, Myanmar's minister for natural resources and environmental conservation, was appointed the day after the disaster to look into the cause of the latest of many accidents to hit the gemstone industry.

The team visited the site in northern Myanmar from July 4-6 with Kachin state officials. They paid the families of each dead scavenger compensation of 500,000 kyats (U.S. $361) and paid 300,000 kyats (U.S. $217) to relatives of each injured miner.

But U Pannita, a monk from Wai Khar village, said the investigators barely spent any time on the ground collecting information from locals in Hpakant, home to some 500,000 scavengers from across Myanmar.

"They didn't go the places where the landslide occurred to see the people who are facing many problems here," he told RFA.

Other residents also said they worried the team would return to the capital without learning the real causes of the landslide because they didn't speak with those who experienced or observed it.

Thant Zin, chairman of the Thukha Lin Pyae Charity Clinic, said Union and state officials should have spoken first with local authorities, people, and experts.

"Locals didn't have a chance to tell them the true situation of what happened," he told RFA.

"They may have had some difficulty traveling here and there as well as a lack of time, but when they visit problem places like this, they won't know the truth."

Thant Zin did not elaborate on what he wanted the investigators to know.

Dangerous location

Groups that monitor resource extraction in Myanmar say that Hpakant, the world's largest jadeite mine, suffers from being in a conflict zone since a ceasefire ended in 2011, with central government authority challenged by militias, criminal groups smuggling drugs and jade and other shady operators.

Daung Zay, administrator of Hapkant's ward No. 6, said the members of the investigative team told local officials to inform residents they should not live in the area and ask them to move out.

I don't understand them," he said. "It's difficult for people to move their entire household."

"What they should have done is help people move from the dangerous areas and make [alternative] arrangements for them during the moving period."

H La Aung, Kachin state's minister for natural resources and environmental conservation, told RFA that the team members didn't meet with many locals on account of COVID-19 guidelines that restrict gatherings, though they met with victims' families and community leaders.

RFA could not reach Win Myat Aye, Union minister for social welfare relief and resettlement who is a member of the investigative team, for comment.

No one from President Win Myint's office's responded to questions submitted by RFA as of late Monday.

Myanmar's military said on July 5 that it took action against Kachin state's security and border affairs minister and an officer in charge of a military unit over the latest landslide, demoting them to their former positions after deeming them responsible for the disaster.

On Monday, Tint Soe, a lawmaker representing Hpakant constituency in Kachin state, called for one-minute of silence in parliament to remember those who lost their lives in the landslide, the latest in a series of such accidents that kill hundreds each year.

Residents move out

As of Friday, more than 30 households from wards Nos. 2 and 6 and from Wai Khar village began leaving of their own accord to seek shelter in the homes of relatives, fearing more deadly landslides if they remained.

Local authorities started inspecting houses in villages where possible landslides could occur.

"Authorities are checking the dangerous places, such as Lone Kin, Saik Mu, and Wai Khar," Soe Tint said, adding that signboards warning residents would be put up.

"If needed, we will take action against people who violate the orders," he said.

Some houses high above a cliff adjacent to the accident site are at risk, said Shwe Thein, chairman of Hpakant's National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

"It is very dangerous," he told RFA on Friday. "I did not even dare to look down."

Local villagers told RFA that heavy machines that remove soil from underneath villages during mining operations leave residents sitting on land above huge holes.

"A house in Lagu Chaung lost its garage and toilet from a landslide," said Htan Tike who lives in ward No. 6.

"The rest of the house has got cracks. All of it will collapse soon," he added.

Hpakant administrator Nyan Lin Aung told RFA said he asked the Natural Disaster Management Committee to help people who have evacuated their homes.

The township administration department, Myanmar Gems and Jewelry Entrepreneurs Association, and community leaders will also help them, he added.

Reported by Elizabeth Jangma and Zarni Htun for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

Copyright © 1998-2018, RFA. Published with the permission of Radio Free Asia, 2025 M St. NW, Suite 300, Washington DC 20036

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