Page last updated at 16:14 GMT, Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Burma's gem mines face closure

By Thuyein Kyaw-Zaw
BBC Burmese Service

Carmen Lucia ruby, Washington DC
Rubies from Burma are famed throughout the world

Burmese rubies and jades are famous for their quality, and sold all over the world.

But even such a reclusive and secretive country as Burma cannot protect itself against the worldwide economic downturn.

Orders for Burmese precious stones have almost come to a halt and prices have plummeted.

As precious stones are Burma's third biggest export, the collapse in demand is having a serious effect on the economy.

They are usually sold, often via the black market, to China and Thailand - where they are treated, polished and then sold.

"A viss (approximately 1.63kg) of jade stones, whether good or bad, usually fetched a little over £1000 ($1440). Now we are unable to sell them at a tenth of that," one gem trader told the BBC.

Gem market in Mae Sot

Burmese rubies and jades are mined in northern Burma, famously dubbed the Valley of Rubies, or the Mogok region which is 800km (500 miles) from Rangoon.

Some estimate that the region accounts for 90% of world ruby production.

But with falling demand, almost all the mine fields in Magok are facing closure.

Some mine fields have closed completely, and some have seen up to 90% of miners lose their jobs.

US ban

Many in the industry blame the drop in demand on the ban imposed on the import of Burmese gems by the United States.

The ban was imposed by the Bush Administration following the crackdown on the pro-democracy movement in 2007.

The former first lady, Laura Bush, also called for the boycott of twice-yearly-held gem emporium in Rangoon.

map of Burma

But others dispute the importance of the US ban in the collapse in demand, saying that because most Burmese gems end up in Europe, American sanctions have only had a limited impact.

The business of mining Burmese precious stones is dominated by the state-owned Myanmar Economic Holdings and the Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC).

With the fall of orders from Thailand, MEC has stopped its operations altogether.

Sources from biggest mining fields told the BBC that until the downturn there were about 500,000 people working in both government-owned and the much smaller privately-owned mines.

This represented about 10% of the working population.

In Mineshu, the largest mining area, there were once 100,000 people employed in the mines. Now it is reported that three-quarters of them have lost their jobs and left.

One miner summed up the current state of the mining industry in Burma as "close to extinction".

He said if the fall in demand continues into next year, it could spell the end for the entire precious stones mining industry in Burma.



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