Gem buyers back away from Myanmar

A worker prepares jade stone for auction in Myanmar. Auctions of rubies and other precious stones are a key source of revenue for the nation's military regime.

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KAI RYSSDAL: The generals who run Burma's military junta might also be some of the world's biggest gem dealers. They control a company known as Myanmar Gem Enterprise. This week the company's holding its big auction in Rangoon. Precious stones bring nearly $300 million into the Burmese economy every year. But the haul might be a little lower this time around. Marketplace's Alisa Roth has the story.


ALISA ROTH: If you own a ruby, chances are pretty good it comes from Burma, since about 90 percent of the red stones on the market come from there. Not suprisingly, gem stones are one of the biggest money-makers for the country. Only natural gas and timber are bigger. Fancy names like Tiffany and Cartier have joined the European Union in its boycott of Burmese gem stones. The question is whether jewelers can force political change.

Dan Slater's a political scientist at the University of Chicago. He says the way to force change in Burma is to make the government to talk to the opposition.

DAN SLATER: So one question is whether or not more economic pain visited on the junta will have that effect. And a second question is to what extent the gem sector is a big enough of a factor to be able to induce the kind of economic pain that might induce the junta to do so.

So far economic sanctions haven't worked because China and India keep doing business there. Where these latest sanctions might have an effect though, is in the U.S., on jewelers and jewelry wearers.

Brian Leber runs his family's jewelry business in the Chicago area. He quit buying Burmese gems in 2002 to protest the regime. He says the Burmese rubies cost more. But that that could change.

BRIAN LEBER: By cutting off the supply of Burmese origin rubies, I think finer quality stones from other places on the globe probably will increase somewhat in value.

It may soon be impossible to legally get Burmese gems in the U.S. Congress is trying to close the loophole that had made the precious stones exempt from the ban on imports from Burma.

In New York, I'm Alisa Roth for Marketplace.

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