US President Obama’s recent announcement lifting all sanctions on Burma has been welcomed by many in the country’s business community, including those in the gems industry.
Yone Mu, chairman of the Myanmar Gems and Jewellery Entrepreneurs Association, said the move wouldn’t necessarily have a huge impact on Burma’s trade in precious stones, but it would help it to upgrade.
“American technology is what we want most to compete with other markets,” he said, adding that Burma has long been an exporter of gems to the rest of the world.
“It is not that we were unable to trade gems when the sanctions were imposed. We have been able to sell gemstones via gem expos. But now with the sanctions lifted, we will have a new market for the trade,” he told DVB on Tuesday.
The US imposed a ban on jade and rubies from Burma as part of its JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act, introduced in 2008. Although the act expired in 2013, it was later reinstated under an executive order. A date when the US can technically start importing gemstones from Burma has yet to be announced.
Earlier this week, a delegation from the American Gem Trade Association, led by its president, Jeffrey Bilgore, arrived in Burma to discuss the potential for expanding business between the two countries.
“Our goal in coming here is to demonstrate that the gem sector in Myanmar [Burma] is as worthy as any in the world, and that responsible commerce can only help all of us improve and make democracy stronger,” Bilgore said in a press statement.
It was unlikely, however, that the opening of the US market would have much effect on Burma’s jade industry, which is estimated to be worth as much as US$31 billion per year — much of it going into the hands of cronies of Burma’s former ruling generals and businesses linked to armed groups.
“The lifting of the US sanctions will not have a big impact on the jade trade as Americans don’t like jade as much as the Chinese, who are still the main market,” said Yone Mu.
He added that other issues related to the jade trade, such as accidents that have claimed the lives of scavengers who scour massive slagheaps in search jade stones, would also be unaffected by the change in Burma’s status.
“There are too many illegal workers, and after a landslide, it is not the duty of businesses to take care of injured workers,” said Yone Mu, whose association represents more than 9,000 members, including traders, miners and other stakeholders in the gem trade.
One issue that the association is keen to see resolved in the near future is the suspension of mining permits pending a review of the Myanmar Gemstones Law under the new National League for Democracy government. Yone Mu said he hoped the suspension would be lifted within the next two or three months.
There have been calls by international watchdog groups to introduce proper safeguards to regulate the notoriously lawless industry.
The US delegation will meet with a range of government, gemstone industry and civil society stakeholders during their trip, which will also include a visit Mogok to observe the mining conditions and practices there.