RESOURCES IN MYANMAR: GOLD, COPPER MINES, GEMS AND SANCTIONS

MYANMAR RESOURCES

Myanmar is rich in natural resources, which includes petroleum, gold, timber, tin, antimony, zinc, copper, tungsten, lead, coal, marble, limestone, precious stones, natural gas, and hydropower. Tungsten, tin, lead and zinc are found in the Shan Plateau. Hydropower can be tapped from Myanmar’s major rivers and tributaries. Burma has long been is famous for rubies and jade, but since 1962, a lack of capital and expertise has hindered that industry. As with timber, most ruby and jade exports go through illegal channels. The Chinese are currently developing a controversial mine in Monywa in central Myanmar.

Myanmar has rich mineral deposits are largely untapped. There is a little tin and tungsten mining. The Chinese copper mine is one of the first really large mining projects in the country. Mining technology has been described as “obsolete but appropriate.” A surprising amount of work is still done by hand.

Burma has been called "the richest of poor countries." In the northern mountains are translucent imperial jade, rubies, diamonds and sapphires; in the central and southern parts of country are 14.6 million acres of rice fields with fertile soil and plentiful rainfall. Burma has the largest remaining stands of teak and padauk , or cherry wood, trees, and valleys filled with opium poppies. [Source: Joel Swerdlow, National Geographic, July 1995]

Gold, Silver and other valuable metals have been found in small quantities in various parts of the country. Fine marble is mined and worked near Mandalay. Coal of fair quality has recently been discovered in several parts of Upper Burma. Mogok supplies the world with rubies. Sapphires are found there, and in the Shan States. Petroleum is obtained in large quantities at Yenangyoung in Upper Burma, and smaller quantities in Arakan and elsewhere. Jade and amber are extracted in considerable quantities in the northern part of the country. According to the environmental group Global Witness, “Burma is resource rich but surrounded by resource-hungry nations and the regime has used this fully to its advantage.”

See Separate Articles RUBIES IN MYANMAR and JADE IN MYANMAR

Gold

There has been a gold rush in recent years in northern Myanmar in the Hukawang Valley area of northern Myanmar. Shingbwiyang (180 miles north of Myitkyina) at mile 109 of the Ledo Road is a shanty settlement of 30,000 people, many of them here to sluice and mine rich gold deposits in the area. Scales displayed in shop windows indicates goods can be purchased with gold. The gold boom has caused prices in the area to sky rocket.

To extract gold miners use water hoses to create huge pits of muck. Cyanide and mercury are used to attract gold from the sludge. Describing the scene at one gold mining area, Alan Rabinowitz wrote in National Geographic, “Two mud-covered workers strain to steady a high-powered hose eating away at the earth, making the cater larger and deeper s I watch.”

Runoff with cyanide and mercury contaminates water supplies. Rabinowitz wrote: “A deforested, sterile landscape, pockmarked with pits similar to one front of us, stretch for miles into the distance. Streams flowing through the area are filled with brown, muddy water, poisoned with cyanide and mercury, .

See Consumer Habits

Gold Beating

The process of gold-bearing which takes place in Mandalay is very interesting. A goldsmith starts with a lump of gold, the size of a silver dollar. The lump is then pounded into a foot long rod which is passed through a hand cranked roller. Repeating this process several times creates a ribbon of gold 55 feet long. The ribbon is then cut into square pieces, and each piece is placed between layers of bamboo paper or parchment. Several dozen of these paper-wrapped pieces are then bound and placed inside a deerskin cover, which is pounded with a sledge hammer or wooden mallet. The gold is then removed and cut into pieces again. This process is repeated until gold sheaths created. Each gold sheath is about five inches square and 1/200,000 of an inch (0,000127 centimeters) thick—which is thinner than the ink on a printed page. The sheaths are bought in packet by Buddhists who place the them on Buddhist statues and temples.

In Myanmar such gold-leaves are widely sold at the famous pagodas to gild Buddha images or stupa with gold-leaf. This is a Myanmar tradition to earn Buddhist merit, Mandalay's gold-leaf makers are concentrated in the south-east of the city, near the intersection of 36th and 78th Streets. Gilding a Buddha image or a stupa with gold leaf brings great merit to the gilder. As a result Buddhist images grow thicker and more amorphous as gold leaf layers are applied, with Buddhist statues being transformed into oadly-shaped gild blobs. Silver, aluminum, copper and sometimes palladium sheaths are available in Myanmar. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information ~]

Metal leaf is often used for decoration. Before the discovery of electroplating it was the only cost effective way to gild statues, rooftops and objects. In Asian countries edible gold is sometimes used in fruit jelly snacks, cakes, sweets and many other food products. Because gold is highly malleable it can be pounded into sheets just micrometers thick without breaking or tearing. As the metal thins out. it forms large sheets. The final sheets of metal are trimmed. cut to various sizes. and sandwiched between sheets of paper to protect them. A small amount of metal will result in a sheet with a large surface area but only a few atoms thick. ~

Chinese-Financed Copper Mine in Myanmar

The massive Monywa mine and Letpadaung copper mine project in the Sagaing region of northern Myanmar is run by a unit of China North Industries Corp, a leading Chinese weapons manufacturer, under a deal signed in June 2010 after Canada's Ivanhoe Mines Ltd pulled out in 2007. It is backed by the military-owned Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd (UMEHL). UMEHL has operated with impunity under Myanmar’s military regime. [Source: Aung Hla Tun, Reuters, November 28, 2012]

Many people in Myanmar—especially those living near it—oppose the mine because of the environmental damage it causes and the villagers it displaces. The villagers complain of health problems and environmental destruction around the mine, including water tainted by chemicals, dying crops, higher cancer rates and the loss of beneficial insects. In 2012, discontent swelled to political action as villagers and activists staged demonstrations—that in some cases were violently put down by Myanmar authorities—opposing a $1 billion expansion of the mine project that displaces nearly 8,000 villagers.

As a truck rumbled by loaded with tailings to be dumped on village land, a villager named U Bo Than told Reuters, “"As a boy I'd walk these mountains, graze cows, everything was green. To lose your land is like losing your soul. Nowadays, this place is like hell." U Bo Than lost 70 acres in government seizure in the 1990s, He told the Los Angeles Times, "During the junta days, we had no recourse, no voice. It's your duty to the nation, we were told."

Mark Magnier wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “"Toward a better future," read a company billboard by a sign warning that martial law was in effect. A few hundred yards away, past dozens of shiny Chinese dump trucks and concrete dorms for Chinese workers, pools of water in Technicolor shades dotted fields that were largely devoid of plant life. Most Burmese are wary of the military's intentions, and the feeling is compounded when China, with its voracious appetite for resources, is involved. Ties between China and Myanmar grew stronger after the West first imposed sanctions on Myanmar in 1988, and many Burmese believe Beijing helped prop up the military regime for years. China uses copper in some of its weapons systems, and the metal also has broader strategic value. [Source: Mark Magnier, Los Angeles Times, December 14, 2012 <>]

“Villagers near the mine face tough opposition from powerful interests. "Fear is pervasive," said Ko Wai Lu, an activist with the Yangon People Honorary Network, who was detained by police in Yangon for more than a week for his support of the Letpadaung protest. "Since it's the military, even the police are afraid, let alone villagers." In November 2012, the parliament launched an independent investigation headed by Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi of whether the Letpadaung expansion should proceed. Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Wai Lwin opposed the inquiry, saying the project employs "world-standard management practices." <>

“Rumors have swirled that Chinese officials are unhappy that their Burmese military partners haven't controlled the protesters. "The Chinese want to squeeze more and more profit out without thinking of the people," said farmer Ko Moe Khaing. "They just cozy up to local officials." Chinese Ambassador Li Junhua said compensation, relocation and other sensitive issues had been negotiated with the Myanmar government in accordance with its laws. That followed a November editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece, that said halting the project would be a "lose-lose" situation and that "only third parties, including some Western forces, will be glad." <>

See Environment Gemstones, Myanmar’s Generals and the Burmese Gem Business

Myanmar produces more than 90 percent of the world's rubies and fine-quality jade. Its rulers depend on the sales of precious stones that also includes sapphires and pearls to fund their regime. Most of its jade and gemstone mines are run by the defense and mines ministries and businessmen with close connections to the regime. Rubies are the biggest earner.

Myanmar sold gems such as jade, rubies and sapphires worth $5.7 billion at three emporiums in the first eight months of 2011. The family of the former leader of Myanmar—Senior Gen. Than Shwe appears—appears to have had a fondness for gems. A widely-circulated bootleg DVD of the general’s daughter’s wedding, shows her covered with diamond-encrusted jewelry.

Government officials say jade has replaced rubies as the main attraction at a state-run auction held in Yangon, According to official government figures for fiscal year 2010-11, Myanmar yielded 46,810 tons of jade and 12.962 million carats of gems which include ruby, sapphire, spinel and peridot, as well as 275, 688 mommis (1,033 kilograms) of pearl. Chanthaburi, a province in Thailand east of Bangkok, is a center for cutting and polishing Burmese gems,

Describing how the gem business in Myanmar worked, a jeweler told the Washington Post he regularly bribes a customs official so that he can smuggle rubies and jade to sellers in Hong Kong and Bangkok. As he weighed a handful of knuckle-size green gems in his Rangoon shop he said sales of diamonds are less problematic. For those, he said with a grin, there is no need to travel because diamonds are the gems of choice of senior generals. A broker coming directly from Naypyitaw visits regularly, he said. [Source: Washington Post, August 16, 2008]

One has to be careful about fraud. There is a story about some crooks who knocked the red tail lights out of military vehicles, tumbled the pieces with gravel, and sold them to foreigners as ruby crystals. [Source: Fred Ward, National Geographic, October 1991, ╔]

Burma produces big white pearls and colored South Sea pearls which are auctioned off with jade and rubies at the annual gem emporiums in Yangon. Pearling is done by Burmese teenagers in ancient brass-helmet diving suits. They descend on ropes and get their air from air hoses. Myanmar is famous for its golden and silver pearls. The Myanmar golden pearl is regarded as the best quality among three South Sea Pearl producer countries namely the Philippines, Indonesia and Myanmar and is most favorite type of pearl throughout the world.

Control by Myanmar Military Over Lucrative Resources

Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “During 45 years of military rule, the generals have steadily consolidated control over the country's most lucrative mining areas. They have amassed enormous wealth from gems, minerals, timber and other vast natural resources, and left most of Myanmar's people poor. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2007 *|*]

"Most of the gems are mined by government firms, or those affiliated with the junta, the generals' relatives and cronies," Soe Myint, a leader in Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy, told the Los Angeles Times. "Whether it's jade, rubies or sapphires, locals cannot mine them anymore. They only get a very small portion. That's why Mogok is at the forefront of the demonstrations. The local people have nothing else to do because all the land has been confiscated by the government and government companies." *|*

The trade in gemstones, the country's third-largest source of revenue, is dominated by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., a consortium co-owned by the Defense Ministry and military officers who hold the bulk of the firm's shares. Since 1992, private companies have been allowed to work for jade and gems mining. In 1995 the Myanmar Gems Law was promulgated, allowing local citizens to excavate, produce and sell gems. Since 1997, local citizens have been allowed to buy gems. The permits for new gem mines in Mogoke, Mineshu and Nanyar state are issued by the Myanmar mining ministry.

Myanmar’s Poor Eek Out a Living with Leftover Gold and Jade

Reporting from Kharbar, Myanmar, Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Squatting along the rocky banks of the Nmai Hka River, villagers labor from dawn till dusk over large wooden pans, scrounging for crumbs from the junta's table. Children barely big enough to swirl the heavy slurry toil alongside men and women, doing backbreaking work that exposes them to toxic mercury. Every few minutes, they pause and tilt their dripping pans to catch the sunlight, hoping for the glint from a few golden flecks that haven't been scooped up with the rest of Myanmar's vast mineral wealth by the ruling generals and their cronies. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2007 *|*]

“On a recent day by the river, Ja Bu, 46, strained to lift shovel loads of slurry as a 10-year-old boy, ankle-deep in the cold, muddy water, worked a pan big enough for him to bathe in. Sixty miles west, Ja Bu's younger brother was searching for jade in the drainage ditch of a mine exhausted years ago by the junta. The few dollars that Ja Bu and her brother manage to scratch together each day from what the generals didn't take buys food, clothes and shelter for 10 people. *|*

“The junta tightly controls access to its large gem and jade mines, but remote places such as Kharbar” are beyond their reach. “But the junta doesn't let much trickle down to places like Kharbar, a remote northern stretch near the Himalayan foothills, close to the Chinese border. It's a spectacularly beautiful, unforgiving place where villagers live in thatched huts with walls woven from bamboo. Thin as cardboard, they are flimsy shelter against frigid winter winds. And as the cost of food and fuel rises, so does the villagers' resentment, which roils like the rapids of the Nmai Hka that taunts them with tiny gifts of gold. *|*

“Dong Shi, a wiry man in a green sweater splitting at the seams, has been working the brown slough and bamboo sluices here for three years. On a good day, he finds $8 worth of gold flakes, the biggest about the size of a pinhead. Like other prospectors, he must pay $250, or more than half an average person's annual income here, to the owner of the land for permission to pan just 10 square feet of riverbank.After Dong Shi pays his stake's owner, his share of the diesel to run a generator and sluice pumps, school fees for his four kids and other mounting expenses, he has little left. "We eat all that I earn," he said. "I have nothing left in my pocket. Tomorrow I go back to work on the river, just to have some more food." *|*

“It is grueling, risky work. To separate gold particles from the slurry, miners squeeze drops of mercury from strips of cloth soaked in quicksilver, exposing them and the river fish they eat to dangerous levels of the heavy metal, which can damage kidneys and the nervous system. For all the prospectors' pain and risk, most pans come up bust. So they dig deeper, push the limits harder.Desperate to hit pay dirt, dreaming of finding a rare nugget instead of just flecks, some villagers rig up hand pumps onshore to homemade breathing hoses, and wade to the middle of the river. They work up to three hours at a time underwater. *|*

“Child labor is an essential part of production at the bottom end of outdoor factories that surround Mandalay's jade market. Children huddle on their haunches around glowing embers in metal braziers, melting doping wax on the end of dop sticks, plucking small pieces of jade from a cup, and carefully placing them on the wax blobs. They blow gently to harden the seals and then hand the sticks up the line to other children. *|*

“On a recent day, one boy sat on the edge of a stool, stretching his leg to reach a wooden pedal that he pumped to spin a bamboo cylinder, wrapped in sandpaper, as he ground pieces of jade to a refined sheen. Once they'd done their best with small hands scraped by the grinders, the boys passed the jade along to men. It takes an experienced hand to get the shimmering polish that will bring the best price, a small piece of the profits that keep Myanmar's military in power. That can't be left in the shaky hands of children. *|*

Anger Over the Myanmar Military Regimes Monopoly on Resources

Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “As the economic chasm widens between Myanmar's people and their corrupt military rulers, places that were once synonymous with the sparkle of precious stones are now earning a darker reputation as hotbeds of political dissent. One is Mogok, for centuries the entrance to the Valley of Rubies, which lies 200 miles south of Kharbar but might as well be a thousand, because the government rarely allows foreign visitors to see for themselves what is happening there. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2007 *|*]

“Some of the earliest protests against rising fuel prices were held in Mogok this summer before they spread to the capital and grabbed world attention. Last month, more than 50 Buddhist monks defied the junta's crackdown and marched peacefully through Mogok. Anger has been boiling beneath the surface there for years as the junta pushed out more small-scale miners, who are left to search the dregs of abandoned mines, said Soe Myint, a leader in exile of detained opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. *|*

“The government tightly controls access to the country's gem and jade mines, but it's possible to get a hint of the suffering that has stirred so much anger against the junta by traveling north to the rough roads and fast-moving rivers around Kharbar. Here, two rivers fed by Himalayan glaciers converge to give birth to the Irrawaddy River, the broad backbone of Myanmar. Long canoes with ear-splitting motors are the only way into the region's most promising gold panning sites, one of the last places where small-scale miners can legally eke out a living. The area is also home to some of the world's best jade deposits. But the junta shut down the biggest operations two years ago, and the flood of cash from Chinese businesspeople suddenly dropped off. The local economy suffered more as most of the jade trade moved south to Mandalay, where more than 100 factories cut and polish the stones, mainly to supply growing demand in China. “ *|*

Myanmar Gems, Jade and Pearl Emporium

In the 1980s the "Gems, Jade and Pearl Emporium” in Rangoon was an annual, six-day, invitation-only affair that took place at the Inya Lake Hotel around the time of the Chinese New Year. Heavily armed guards watched the proceedings as buyers from around the world examined precious stones set up on tables in the hotel and tents on the hotel grounds and bid on gems in the auction room. The atmosphere is surprisingly subdued, considering the sums of money that are at stake. Tea and sandwiches are served and buyers often doze off.

At the 1984 emporium, held at the Inya Lake hotel in Rangoon, $7.4 million was spent of pearl, gems, and 262 lots of jade. The prize piece of jade was a 12-pound boulder of Imperial jade that fetched $151,900. One ton boulders of lower quality jade went for $30,000. In 1983 a 36-ton was offered (but not sold). A special road from the mine to the railroad had to built to transport it.

Organized by the Mines Ministry, the gem emporiums have been held since 1964. The auction is led by a Burmese auctioneer who announces the lots in English. Bids are written down by the buyers on green papers, which are folded and placed in a silver bowl at the front of the auction room. In recent years the junta has been holding gem auctions with increasing frequency. Organizers launched a midyear sale in 1992. Four were held in 2006, when the gem trade generated $296.9 million for the state-run Myanmar Gems Enterprise, the third-largest revenue earner for the military government after fossil fuels and timber. Three emporiums were held in 2011.

Myanmar Gems, Jade and Pearl Emporium in After Major Protests in 2007

About 3,500 people from around the world attended the gems auction in Myanmar despite calls for a boycott by human rights groups and the US first lady Laura Bush."Altogether 3,540 gem merchants at home and abroad attended the Midyear Gem Emporium, and more merchants will arrive here to attend it," the New Light of Myanmar said, adding that so far 481 lots of jade had been sold. An official from the state-run Myanmar Gems Enterprise last week told AFP that the military government hopes to sell some 5,500 lots of jade, gems and pearls, worth nearly 200 million euros (about 300 million dollars). About $150 million was actually sold.[Source: AFP, November 17, 2007 <>]

AFP reported: “A total of 2,093 dealers in precious stones came from China, the paper said, while others came from countries including India, Singapore, Thailand, Italy, Britain, Japan, Australia, the United States and Canada. US First Lady Laura Bush on Friday called for a global boycott of jewels from Myanmar, urging companies to shun the gems show in Yangon after a deadly crackdown on peaceful protests in September. In a White House statement, she said that every stone "bought, cut, polished, and sold sustains an illegitimate, repressive regime." New York-based Human Rights Watch has also urged a boycott of the sale, saying the trade in the precious stones supported human rights abuses including land confiscation and forced labour at the gem mines. <>

About $150 million of gems was actually sold. Thomas Fuller wrote in The New York Times, “Officially, the government-sponsored gem auction that opened this week in Myanmar is a success, with 2,667 traders browsing the country's renowned rubies, jade, sapphires and other precious stones, the New Light of Myanmar, a state-run newspaper, reported. But dealers and a trader based in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital, say sales of precious stones -- a financial lifeline for the nation's cash-strapped economy -- are slumping. They say the exposition and auction, the first since the junta's suppression of popular protests drew international criticism and the threat of U.N. Security Council sanctions, has been unusually quiet. "Business is very slow, not like before," said U Kyaw, a gem merchant in Yangon. [Source: Thomas Fuller, The New York Times, November 17, 2007 ><]

“The threat of sanctions by the United States and the European Union that would prohibit the import of Burmese gemstones has dented dealers' confidence. Adisak Thawornviriyanan, director of the Gems and Jewelry Traders Association of Chanthaburi, a province east of Bangkok that is a center for cutting and polishing Burmese gems, has taken part in the auctions for the past four years but decided not to attend this one. "We will wait and see if we can sell our old stock, but I wouldn't dare buy more," Adisak said. "We don't know how strong the U.S. ban will be." ><

Myanmar Gems, Jade and Pearl Emporiums in 2008

On the emporium in January 2008, news agencies reported: “Myanmar's military government sold 600 lots of gems and jade at a recent auction. Despite calls from the United States and human rights groups for a boycott of the sale after a bloody crackdown on protests in September 2007, about 280 foreigners attended the sale, the New Light of Myanmar said. The government newspaper did not reveal how much the five-day auction earned. About 1,600 lots of gems and jade were up for sale at the auction which ended Saturday, and another sale of the precious stones is scheduled for March, the newspaper said. [Source: Agencies, January 21, 2008]

Robust demand from jade-crazed China, Thailand and Singapore has continued to boost gem trading, despite an outcry from the international community over the suppression of pro-democracy protests last year. U.S. First Lady Laura Bush urged companies to shun the auctions, while top jewellers Tiffany, Cartier and Bulgari said they would refuse to sell Myanmar gems. In December 2007, the U.S. Senate approved sanctions against Myanmar's multi-million dollar gemstone industry to punish the military regime, while the European Union has also tightened sanctions aimed at the top generals.

On the emporium in January 2008, Associated Press reported: “Myanmar has earned more than $175 million (130 million euros) from its latest government-sponsored sale of gems, despite a U.S. ban on their import, an official said. Most of the revenue from the 13-day auction that ended was earned from the sales of jade, which fetched more than $172 million (128 million euros). Gemstones and pearls were the other items offered. An organizer of the gems emporium said 2,648 gem merchants participated from nearly a dozen countries, including China, Thailand, Japan and Canada. [Source: Associated Press, October 17, 2008]

Myanmar gem sellers say the sanctions have very little impact on their business because they rely on Chinese and Thai gem merchants, who are the major buyers. The largest contingent at this latest sale was the more than 2,200 gem merchants from China, which is the main market for Myanmar jade. The second largest contingent of more than 70 gem merchants were Thais, who usually dominate the gems and jewelry bidding. Due to U.S. economic sanctions imposed on Myanmar in July 2003, which froze all U.S. dollar remittances to the country, international business transactions including the gem sales are done in euros.

Myanmar Gems, Jade and Pearl Emporium in 2011 Rakes in a Record $2.8 Billion

In March 2011, Reuters reported: “Gems dealers in Myanmar hit record sales of more than 2 billion euros ($2.8 million) during a 12-day emporium, a trade official said, The figure was close to the total 2.2 billion euros taken in over three emporiums last year and was the biggest single sale of gems since Myanmar started holding the events 47 years ago. The fair in the capital, Naypyitaw, attracted 8,719 gems traders, 5,000 of them from overseas, with 13,608 lots of jade sold, a senior official from Federation of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry told Reuters.[Source: Reuters, March 25, 2011 ^*^]

The United States Congress passed a bill in October 2007 to expand sanctions outlawing domestic sales of rubies, jade and other gems routed through Myanmar's neighbors. Experts say this has had only a limited impact on the junta. The last fair, in November 2010, recorded sales amounting of 1.08 billion euros. Myanmar used to limit publicity of the fairs but has become more open in the last year. It has launched a drive to attract foreign investment, particularly from Asian countries, to what it says is a market with vast potential held back by sanctions. ^*^

Slumping Sales at the Myanmar Gems, Jade and Pearl Emporium in 2012

In March 2012, Xinhua reported: “Myanmar's 49th annual gem sale this year experienced a slumping business with proceeds at $702.66 million, a sharp drop from the last annual event in March 2011 when it gained $2.8 billion. Local media attributed the plunge of the earning to the low market demand mainly from neighboring countries, as most merchants from these countries visited the Myanmar gem sale. [Source: Su Myat Sandy, Xinhua, March 23, 2012]

This year's 10-day annual gems emporium, which ran from March 9 to 18, was launched at the Mani Yadana Jade Hall in the new capital of Nay Pyi Taw and was attended by a total of 6,000 gems traders including 3,000 from abroad, the majority of whom came from Asian countries and regions. A total of 9,762 jade lots were sold through tender or competitive bidding in this year's annual event along with 227 gems lots and 8,367 pearl lots. The proceeds of this year's annual gems emporium made not much difference from that of the mid-year emporium in December 2011,

At this year's gem sale, 16,247 jade lots of 361 private companies, six fossilized wood lots, 31 sets of government-owned polished jade lots and 31 sets of private-owned polished jade lots, 137 lots of other mineral precious stone are put on sale through a tender system, while 245 jade lots through a competitive bidding system. Of them, 41 jade lots worth over 1 million euro for each lot and above the floor price were on sale through the competitive bidding system.

There also displayed jade boulders, polish loose jade stones, uncut gems and polish gem stones, pearls, jewelry made of jade, gems and pearl, petrified wood and its products, jade figurines, crystals, mosaic paintings and silverware, which were on sale to both local and international buyers. Many pieces of Myanmar golden pearl and silver pearl that the merchants across the world prefer were also put on sale. The pearl produced by Myanmar is the type of South Sea Pearl. Gem trader Lin Zefan from China purchased jade lots at the highest prices in total at the emporium.

Problems with Myanmar Gems, Rubies and Jade Trade

Gemstones are a lucrative source of income for Myanmar's military government and its business cronies, despite Western sanctions imposed on the resource-rich country, some of which outlaw the procurement and sale of Burmese stones (See Sanctions below). Despite the embargoes, many of the gems reach Western countries via other Asian countries, Hong Kong and Taiwan in particular. U.S. officials have said that Myanmar has been evading gem-targeting sanctions by laundering stones in other countries before they are shipped to the United States.

The Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma has claimed stated that mining operators use drugs on employees to improve productivity, with needles shared, raising the risk of HIV infection: "These rubies are red with the blood of young people." Brian Leber (41-year-old jeweler who founded The Jewellers' Burma Relief Project) stated that: "For the time being, Burmese gems should not be something to be proud of. They should be an object of revulsion. It's the only country where one obtains really top quality rubies, but I stopped dealing in them. I don't want to be part of a nation's misery. If someone asks for a ruby now I show them a nice pink sapphire."

Richard W. Hughes, author of Ruby and Sapphire, a Bangkok based gemologist who has made many trips to Burma makes the point that for every ruby sold through the junta, another gem that supports subsistence mining is smuggled over the Thai border. [Source: Wikipedia]

Thomas Fuller wrote in The New York Times, “How accurately gems can be identified as being of Burmese origin has sparked debate. Gem experts say rubies can be identified by chemical signatures. But Henry Ho, a jeweler in Bangkok who has long dealt in Burmese gems, says gem trading is based on trust. "Only God and the miner know where the gems come from," Ho said. "God doesn't speak to you, and the miner will lie about it." [Source: Thomas Fuller, The New York Times, November 17, 2007 ><]

Sanctions on Myanmar Gems, Rubies and Jade

Since 2003, the United States government has banned the importation of gemstones from Myanmar, especially valuable ruby and jadeite. This was part of a program of sanctions to put pressure on the military junta that had ignored democratic elections, placed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and persecuted minority groups throughout the country. The gem import ban was one of several economic sanctions Washington applied to Myanmar's military government because of its poor human rights record and failure to hand over power to a democratically elected government. Though Burma has now made substantial progress towards reform, the sanctions on ruby and jadeite were still in place as of November 2012. [Source: AJS Gems /*\]

After the Saffron Revolution protests and crackdown in September 2007, which left dozens dead and thousands arrests, the international community steep up pressure on Myanmar’s military regime and its gem business. Human rights organizations, gem dealers such as Bulgari, and U.S. First Lady Laura Bush called for a boycott of a Myanmar gem auction, arguing that the sale of the stones profits the dictatorial regime in that country. Thomas Fuller wrote in The New York Times, “Cartier of Paris joined Tiffany and Signet when it banned Burmese gems. And Jewelers of America, which represents about a third of jewelry shops, announced that it was backing the tougher ban on Burmese gems being considered by the U.S.

The United States Congress passed a bill in October 2007 to expand sanctions outlawing domestic sales of rubies, jade and other gems routed through Myanmar's neighbors. The 2003 legislation had a rather large loophole. Gems which had been cut and polished outside Burma -- usually in Thailand -- could legally be imported as products of the processing country. In 2008 the Bush administration moved to close this loophole with the passing of new legislation, known as the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta's Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008. This new legislation prohibited the import of ruby and jadeite mined or extracted from Burma, regardless of where the material was processed. Other gem varieties, such as spinel and zircon were not affected. /*\

Much to the surprise of the international community, the new civilian government, led by a former general, Thein Sein, which came to power in March 2011, embarked on a sustained program of reforms. After that U.S. sanctions were eased, but not the ones on rubies and other gemstones. The ban on the import of ruby and jadeite has always been controversial, and has been opposed by many people in the gem trade. The concern is that the sanctions did little to limit income to the Burmese junta, since China, their largest trading partner, was a regular customer at government auctions for ruby and jadeite. The sanctions mainly affected small miners and gem traders who sold their gems to Thai dealers.

While many sanctions placed on the former regime were eased or lifted in 2012, the US has left restrictions on importing rubies and jade from Myanmar intact. According to recent amendments to the new Myanmar foreign investment law, there is no longer a minimum capital requirement for investments, except in mining ventures, which require substantial proof of capital and must be documented through a domestic bank. Another important clarification in the investment law is the dropping of foreign ownership restrictions in joint ventures, except in restricted sectors, such as mining, where FDI will be capped at 80 per cent.

Many have claimed the sanction on gems was not very effective as they were undercut by Asian buyers. Paul Watson wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “But as Western shoppers shun Myanmar's jewels, buyers from neighboring China are rushing in to scoop up the country's gold and jade, highly prized by the growing middle class and by the fabulously wealthy, eager to find more ways to flaunt their new wealth. [Source: Paul Watson, Los Angeles Times, December 24, 2007]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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