U.S. to Ban All Burma Products, Including Gems

Congress has passed a bill that would ban all imports from Myanmar (a.k.a. Burma), including gems. The “Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003” states that, until the ruling Burmese military junta meets certain conditions regarding human rights and has made “measurable and substantial progress toward implementing a democratic government” in the country, “the President shall ban the importation of any article that is a product of Burma.”

The bill’s full title is “An Act to sanction the ruling Burmese military junta, to strengthen Burma’s democratic forces, and support and recognize the National League of Democracy as the legitimate representative of the Burmese people, and for other purposes.”

While most Burmese gems pass through Thailand or China before entering the United States, the government could, in theory, make life difficult for gem dealers who specialize in Burmese gems, says Fred Ward, a gem author and photojournalist from Bethesda, Md.

Bill Larson, one of the few U.S. gem dealers who venture into Burma, has canceled this year’s trip to buy minerals, since it would be illegal to bring Burmese gems into the country. It’s still unclear if the United States will try to strictly control the importation of transshipped Burmese gems—i.e., shipments that stop in other countries before entering the United States.

“I really don’t think it will make a difference,” says Larson. “Most of [the gem material] is imported from Thailand. It’s cut and polished there and would be impossible to control. But it’s a good way to put pressure on the [Burmese] government.” Larson isn’t sure if the bill will affect gem pricing.

Myanmar’s military junta calls itself the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC). Reportedly, narcotics and gemstones are its chief sources of revenue. Smuggling across the border into Thailand has been an important conduit for the illegal trade of Burmese gems. But with Burmese democratic rebels hiding in Thailand when they’re not fighting the junta inside Burma, the relationship between Thailand and Burma—especially at the border—has been strained. Reportedly, the trade in smuggled gems is slow at present.

Ron Rahmanan at Sarah Gem Corp. in New York City stocks Burma rubies. Like Larson, he believes dealers are unlikely to encounter problems getting Burma gems. “The Burma gem auctions are held two to three times a year and usually don’t rely on the Americans anyway,” says Rahmanan. The auction buyers typically hail from Thailand, Hong Kong, Japan, and Singapore. The American trade becomes important only after the gems have been cut and polished.

Bear Williams of Bear Essentials in Jefferson City, Mo., notes, “The law does not go into effect until 30 days after President Bush signs it.” Therefore, he believes, it won’t affect goods purchased before the sanctions, which means such goods could be sold in the open market long after the law goes into effect.