Burma is holding it’s first auction of gems and jade since its deadly crackdown on pro-democracy protests.
The auction defies a tightening of sanctions and calls for a boycott of its jewel trade.
The poverty-stricken country is the source of up to 90 percent of the world’s rubies, and each auction of precious stones rakes in more than 100 million dollars, making it a key source of revenue for the military regime.
With financial sanctions being placed, it is getting increasingly difficult for the Burmese generals to move their money around.
And as King Kong Janoi reports from the border town of Myawaddy, the weak Burmese currency is bringing cross-boarder trade to a stand-still.
“At the movement, there are only a few trucks filled with goods crossing into Burma. Earlier this year there were many big trucks going in and out of Burma filled with things such as oil, gas, seasoning and basic commodities.”
That’s U Tun Soe a long time resident of the boarder town of Myawaddy.
A Burmese trader Ma Nam says the stand-still in trade is due to the poor exchange rate.
“If the Thai Baht is weak, we can buy cheap goods and can sell them easily in Burma. But the Thai baht is getting stronger and stronger, the Burmese kyat is getting weaker and weaker”
One Thai baht buys 40 Burmese kyat. A month ago one baht was equal to 30 kyat.
Traders here also blame the military junta for their hardships.
Ma Aung Aung says she is saddled with high taxes and lengthy delays.
The junta has banned the import of many basic commodities like oil and condense milk, to ensure it retains tight control over the movement of goods.
Ma Aung Aung says that the dramatic fuel increase in August has had a huge impact on her import-export business.
The cost of transport makes it unprofitable to import she says.
Economist Dr Kyaw Nyut, says Burma was not ready for a such a fuel price increase.
“When the Burmese junta increased the price of fuel five times it had a dramatic impact on the price of everything. Salaries have not increase but the cost of transport has. I can’t imagine how people are surviving.�?
Ma Nam who runs a big jewelry shops in Rangoon says business is extremely quiet.
“As you know, the economy is bad in Burma so people only buy the things they need to survive.�?
She says, there are many shops in Rangoon who are on the verge of closing down.
The military junta has blame the slow economic growth on the national sanctions imposed on them by western nations.
International outrage over the brutal crackdown on the monk-led protests has led to tighter Western sanctions on the regime, including moves by the United States and European Union to target the gems trade.
Kyaw Lin Oo, a Burmese political science student argues sanction must target companies associated with the junta.
“We need a sanction to attack the policy of Burmese junta. But of course we worry that they make the life of original people harder. That is why we want more and more targeted sanctions. The US government must not stop the import of every product from Burma. It’s better to target businesses associated with the generals. For example every business owned by Tay Za has been affected by the sanctions. We believe that this is directly hurts the generals rather than the original people. This is what we want.�?
However many argue that the sanctions from the West are having no impact on the junta.
Most of Burma’s trade is with it’s Asian neighbors Thailand, China and India which have ignored calls for sanctions on the regime.
Professor Win Min.
“So far, I don’t see much impact on economy because all the government in region including China and India are not involving sanction on Burma but instant they have been engaged with military so that this engagement make the sanction not really have been impact in Burmese economic.�?
At the gem action in Yangon most of the 3,000 foreign buyers are from China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Thailand.
The generals are estimated to have earned around 750 million US dollars since they began holding official gem and jade sales in 1964.
A far bigger number of precious stones are smuggled out.
In neighbouring Thailand, where the majority of the gems are bought and sold, stone merchants have yet to be put off business with the junta.