Proper Way To Carry And Hold 2 Month Old Baby Burmese Gem Smuggling is Part of Border Life

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Burmese Gem Smuggling is Part of Border Life

MAE SOT, Thailand – The futility of stopping smuggled goods coming into Thailand hits you like the proverbial two-by-four face when you look across the Moi River into Myanmar.

The Friendship Bridge has a constant flow of foot traffic, and at least that many people cross the river on inner tubes or in small boats. And in the dry season the two months either side of New Year many just wade through knee-deep water.

The Thai military is paying attention to the movement but is not trying to stop the traffic. The Thai immigration network begins with a checkpoint almost 10 kilometers (six miles) inside the country. And at that point they are more concerned about people entering illegally than the movement of goods.

And the crossing in Mae Sot is only one place along the 2,107 kilometer

(1,309.8-mile) limit.

Thai law requires an import tax on precious stones, and police have sometimes arrested people for breaking the law. But it’s rare and when people are charged it’s usually in Bangkok.

The laws are old – Sections 27 of the Customs Act of 1926, and Sections 16 and

17 of the Customs Act of 1939 – and predates Thailand becoming a global cutting and polishing center for colored stones. Now most stones are imported for value-added work and then exported again, so Thailand makes money from the trade and the tax does not help encourage bringing stones to Thailand. For a while when Thailand produced its own rough from mines near Cambodia and Myanmar, they did not need the imported goods. Now, however, with its own mines dried up, the rough must come from outside Thailand.

In America it is legal to import loose stones and not pay duty, as long as you declare their value. Even stones illegally taken from their country of origin can be imported duty-free into the United States.

But, Thailand has not changed their laws to accommodate their gems and jewelry industry; so the tax costs remain. And duties add cost, and smuggling is easy and cheap, but adds one more obstacle in an arduous and risky trade.

That is the smuggling on the Thai side, in Myanmar it is more difficult.

An indication of how widespread the industry is in Thailand, it was in Chanthaburi in the east of the country near Cambodia that a man who smuggled colored stones from Myanmar explained part of the game.

He said the hardest part is in Myanmar itself, where the overwhelming military government wants them taken and imposes an export tax on all the stones. The generals tried to increase the sales of gems inside the country, so more money stays in Myanmar.

On September 29, 1995, they enacted the Myanmar Gems Act to foster a free market for gems. The law allowed traders to sell the stones mined, cut and polished in Myanmar on the open market in Myanmar.

But the seller in Chanthaburi said vast quantities of stones continue to be smuggled out of Myanmar, with many people involved carrying small amounts.

Some deliver to buyers at the border, and others bring the stones to market in Thailand itself.

It’s hard to get details about how things move inside Myanmar, with most smugglers seeing little benefit in telling, and suspicious when people ask too many questions.

But, as some say in Mae Sot, stones do not travel at all. Even the soldiers smuggle stones. And some of the ethnic armies that signed peace agreements with the Yangon generals are also involved. In fact, smuggling occurs at almost every level.

Those who don’t want to smuggle the goods themselves can find people who do.

The route from the mines at Mogok and Mong Hsu for colored stones, and Hpakan for jade is much more dangerous and difficult in Myanmar. It’s generally a two-day trip to Mae Sot, often much of it on foot, and there are plenty of potential dangers passing through areas controlled by various groups and tolls along the way.

But, the smuggling routes are decades, even centuries, old so well established with their own accepted rules. They are so entrenched that many consider it carrying goods along a trade route not smuggling.

Once in Thailand, moving stones in small quantities is quite easy and requires few precautions. But if someone wants to move a lot of precious stones, it is wise to make arrangements. And it can be cheaper to pay the right people a small sum of a few thousand baht (a hundred or more dollars) before moving the stones, than to have to pay them a lot after being discovered with them.

Stones sometimes stuffed with other goods coming into Thailand from Myanmar.

Myanmar’s vegetables and perishables go little further than the border towns, but teak, old and antique furniture and ornaments from a desperately poor country selling its heritage to survive are quite common.

And then there are the drugs.

The movement of methamphetamine, which Thais call “ya ba” (crazy drug), began to change the border dynamics around 2000 when the drug began to be manufactured in large quantities along the border regions.

Crackdowns on the drug seen as destroying the fabric of Thai life were harsh and frequent. More than 2,500 drug dealers were killed in 2002 during the government’s effort to rid Thailand of the drug. Government authorities were quick to point out that most of the killing was among drug dealers.

The result for the gem trade was the more thorough searches for medicines could also turn up stones that would raise the price with the wearer having to pay a “fine” to continue with their wares. But, the authorities are looking for large consignments of drugs, so the impact on taking care of small quantities of stones was minimal.

However, the drug trade is widespread along the border regions, and sometimes linked to the gem trade. The United Wa State Army (UWSA), one of Myanmar’s many ethnic armies, is one group involved in the drug trade, and using the gem trade to hide their drug dealings, according to Thai government sources.

The military government in Yangon signed an agreement with the UWSA in June 2001, which included the condition that they stop dealing in drugs and turn to gems.

But according to Thai government sources, the UWSA decided that the two businesses were better than one. And they reportedly used the biannual gem auctions hosted by the Myanmar Gems Enterprise to launder drug money. At past auctions, Wa dealers bid their own gems paying more than the original costs to launder the money.

But many gem dealers say the drug relationship is overblown. They point out that it is too risky to transport gems with drugs. Carrying them alone is safer and there are many willing to do so.

Finding “mules” to carry stones is quite easy with much of Myanmar in dire economic straights. Migrants come to Thailand in the hundreds of thousands looking for work. An Amnesty International report published in June (2005) states that migrants from Myanmar are taking the dangerous, dirty jobs that Thais do not want.

The report says they are “paid well below the Thai minimum wage, work long hours in unsanitary conditions and risk arbitrary arrest and deportation.”

Some add that it is a long limit and a rough gem can be worn in small quantities. Some Bangkok gem dealers, in fact, say that many stones are “smuggled” into Thailand in coat pockets.

The gems are in, have been for centuries, and will continue to do so.

In Mae Sot the number of peddlers peddling stones during the daily street market has increased in recent years. Now Prasatwithi Road is often crowded between 11 am and 2 pm. And you’re just as likely to hear Burmese spoken as Thai.

The stones are from all over, including Africa, but most are from Myanmar. But some of them go from Myanmar to Chanthaburi, then back to Mae Sot. Cutting and polishing is much better in Chanthaburi, it’s pretty mediocre in Mae Sot, many say.

Jade has become more plentiful, but the more precious stones generate more interest, and rubies remain the biggest draw.

But buyers say more sellers don’t necessarily mean more sales. Noi said that she has been in the business for 20 years in Mae Sot, and the amount of stones is not much more than before, only more people sell smaller amounts.

The US embargo of everything from Myanmar had little effect on gems because it did not have time. And now rough by the pariah state is legal again. That could be a good thing considering the futility of a world ruby ​​market without rough from Myanmar, where most traders estimate about 80 percent of the original content to come. And it is also the best in the whole world.

During the time when even rough was considered forbidden by Myanmar, high-quality rubies began to appear from Vietnam, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. Now with rough from Myanmar legal – as long as it is significantly improved elsewhere – those same stones are back to being from Myanmar.

US customs officials would have had a hard time telling a Mogok ruby ​​from a Vietnam ruby, anyway, so enforcing the ban would have been difficult at best.

And those same customs officers have more pressing items to search for such as weapons and drugs.

But not only rubies and other colored stones got around the embargo. Clothing factories are said to sew on labels that say made in Thailand, China or another country, and through intermediaries there sell the clothes in the United States and EU countries.

Embargoes are difficult to maintain, and it is about something as valuable and easy to transport as colored stones, almost impossible.

American companies stopped buying rubies and everything else from Myanmar in

2003 when the US banned the import of all Myanmar products with the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act enacted on August 28. The ban was in protest against the abuses of human rights by the ruling generals.

Then in December 2004 the US Customs department changed the rule on colored stones. The new rules stated that gems mined in Myanmar, but cut and polished in other countries, are not classified as from Myanmar. So rubies and other stones were effectively exempted from the ban.

Most of Myanmar’s colored stones are cut and polished in Canthaburi, a global center for heat treatment. Even stones already cut and polished in Myanmar, are often made that way again because the skill there is lower than Thai craftsmanship.

However, some American companies have stuck with the ban, reportedly including Tiffany & Co, which in March 2005 said it would not buy stones from Myanmar.

President and CEO Michael Kowalski said in a statement: “We support democratic reforms and an end to human rights abuses in that country and we believe our customers would agree with that position.”

Aung Din, Burmese co-founder of the American Campaign for Burma called it good politics.

“Mining in Burma (Myanmar) supports the ruling dictator while bleeding the Burmese people, so no one should buy these ‘blood gems’,” he told Thailand’s Irrawaddy magazine.

Gems are currently a main source of income for the military government.

According to Myanmar government figures, they earned $22 million at the second of two official auctions in 2004, an event held twice a year since 1992.

The Myanmar Gems Emporium as it is called dates back to 1964 when it was an informal gathering. Then in 1992 to win more of the gems, the generals had the Myanmar Gems Enterprise, under the Ministry of Mines, hold two a year.

But that was for official sales. The Myanmar government receives nothing from stones smuggled into Thailand.

“There are two ways to get stones from Burma. One is to deal with the Burmese government at their auctions. The other is to deal with people who smuggle it across the border into Thailand. What they smuggle to the government in Burma gets nothing,” said a Bangkok gem dealer.

Jade is another matter. Much comes into Thailand, but more goes directly to China, with a growing market for the stone in the expanding economy there.

And the jade mines in northern Myanmar are conveniently close to the 2,204-kilometer (1,370-mile) border between the two countries.

It does not seem how tightly the generals in Yangon are stretching the net; colored stones continue to travel their well-trodden paths out of the country and into the world market.

For more information on these can be found here, Burmese gems [http://gemdreamz.com] & jewellery [http://jewelry].

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