U.S. Will Ban Imports from Myanmar

July 21, 2003

U.S. Will Ban Imports from Myanmar

A bill passed by the U.S. Congress will ban imports of any product of Myanmar (formerly Burma) for a period of one year, unless Myanmar's government makes progress in implementing democratic institutions, such as freedom of speech, press and religion. The bill, the "Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003," may have serious consequences on the gemstone business in the U.S., say jewelry industry leaders. The U.S. refers to Myanmar as Burma, as it has never recognized the government holding power, and the nation is referred to in the gemstone industry as Burma.

The bill is meant to persuade SLORC, the dictatorial junta ruling Myanmar, to free opposition leader and Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and institute democratic reforms. Suu Kyi was recently freed from the house arrest imposed on her in 1990 after her political party won elections. But she was jailed again May 30, after government loyalists ambushed her motorcade.

President George W. Bush is expected to sign the bill into law within days. "This legislation sends a clear message to the Burmese regime that their continued detention of Nobel Peace Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi and their assaults on freedom cannot stand," said a White House spokesperson.

Myanmar is the source of coveted gemstones, including rubies, sapphires, peridot, natural pearls, spinel and jadeite jade. In each species and variety, Burmese gems are often cited as the standard by which gems from other localities are compared. "Certificates detailing Burma as the country of origin, especially in rubies and sapphires, are generally necessary to help sell a gem at a premium," explains Fred Ward, a gem expert and author in Bethesda, MD. "It would be hard to sell a $100,000 ruby without such a report."

"There will be a huge impact on gem dealers," predicts Jack Abraham of Precious Gem Resources Inc., New York City. "There is no gem source in the world that can fill this void or satisfy demand in any form or format." He says this will give dealers in Europe and other regions a competitive advantage over U.S. dealers. "Prices in the United States will probably go up significantly," he says.

Some gems, including top qualities of jadeite jade, are unique to Myanmar. While the U.S. does not import as much jade as other countries, that which it does import could face sanctions. Jade importer and expert Don Kay of Mason-Kay Inc., Denver, CO, says he will soon speak to his congressman. "I believe there will have to be a better definition of 'banning the importation of any article that is a product of Burma,' as stated in the bill," he says. "For example, I buy my jade in China, not in Burma. That is where it is worked and processed. Would the law encompass those products as well? Will it encompass antiquities in jade that once originated in Burma?" The same question could be asked of many other Burmese gemstones that pass through Thailand, the region's principal gem processing center.

The American Gem Trade Association is also looking at ways to express its concerns about the impact on the gem business to legislators. "Right now we are in the investigative phase, to see exactly what impact the ban is likely to have," says Douglas Hucker, AGTA executive director. "Obviously, we do not want to condone or support a government that abuses human rights, but it is important to note that our industry is relatively small in relation to other industries, such as timber, and could be adversely affected."

The International Colored Gemstone Association is also studying potential effects of the ban. "Much depends on how the ban is carried out," says Joe Menzie, ICA president. "Obviously our U.S. members will be affected somehow, but members from other countries may not be as affected."

"I care very much about Burma," says Richard Hughes of Pala International, Fallbrook, CA. "I would love to see the regime overthrown for all of the reasons stated in the bill. But my guess is that these sanctions will have little effect on the government, whereas they'll have a largely negative effect on the people they are designed to help."

by Robert Weldon, G.G.

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