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Who's buying Burma's gems?

Laura Bush's campaign for a global boycott is being undone by China's appetite for Olympic souvenirs made of Burmese jade.

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Worried about being associated with the junta's practices, some of the world's biggest names in precious stones – including Frances' Cartier, Italy's Bulgari, and the US-based Tiffany & Co., and Leber Jeweler Inc. – have announced their own bans on Burma's gems.

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But, clearly, not everyone has joined the bandwagon. At this January's auction in Rangoon, according to the New Light of Myanmar, 600 lots of jade were sold – a third more than at the last auction held in November. By some estimates, jade alone now accounts for about 10 percent of Burma's yearly export earnings. Rubies, in turn, remain Burma's gem of choice; the country is reportedly the source of close to 90 percent of the world's supply. And Burma also exports diamonds, cat's- eyes, emeralds, topaz, pearls, sapphires, coral, and yellow garnet.

The government's Myanmar Gem Enterprise – Burma's third largest export company after the state-run oil and timber companies – has said gem sales have increased by 45 percent every year for the past three. The gem auctions, held once or twice a year since 1964, are becoming more frequent. All told, the official trade in Burma's gems, according HRW, was valued at $297 million in fiscal year 2006-2007, but is estimated to actually be much higher when factoring in unofficial sales.

Why haven't Western sanctions on Burma's gems – and the country's other products – been more effective, even after so many years?

"The only sanctions that would work would be Chinese," asserts Robert Rotberg, a professor of public policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School. "The Chinese ... supply all the weapons and much of the investment [to Burma]."

And, while gems are clearly a part of the problem, stresses Mr. Rotberg, they are only the very tip of the iceberg. "The role of gems is not huge ... compared with oil and gas, and opium smuggling," he says. Overall, China, Thailand, and India reportedly spend about $2 billion a year here on electricity, natural gas, oil and timber.

"China is the culprit here," explains Thai social critic and frequent Burma commentator Acharn Sulak Sivaraksa. "Burma is supported by China. End of story. We need to liberate that country not only from its own military junta but also from the imperialist Chinese."

Pressure on China – and to a smaller extent on India and Thailand – to assume a more constructive role in Burma is mounting.