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Economy

Myanmar to ramp up gem exports post-sanctions

Visitors look for high-quality Myanmar jade in a fair in Myanmar's capital of Naypytaw.

YANGON -- Earlier this month, Washington removed all remaining sanctions on Myanmar, including bans on imports of jade and rubies to the U.S.

The move was in response to the Myanmar government's initiative to achieve more democratic society, led by State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, since it was launched in March. U.S. establishments are now allowed to resume trading with about 100 Myanmar companies and individuals that had links to the former military junta.

The U.S. side is keen to restart business with Myanmar soon. An American Gem Trade Association delegation has already visited the Southeast Asian country.

Expectations are growing among Myanmar businesses for the reopened window to the U.S., the world's largest gem market. But Suu Kyi and her colleagues may want to shift the country away from its heavy reliance on precious stones.

Myanmar's high-quality jade and "pigeon blood" rubies are highly valued on the global market. Chinese people have admired Myanmar jade as "green bamboo" since ancient times. The stone was once the country's most important natural resource to earn foreign currency, but was later replaced with the natural gas boom of the 2000s.

Myanmar is a leading precious-stone producer, and major businesses in the country are often linked to some extent to the gem industry. Conglomerate KBZ group, which owns the country's largest bank, has its roots in ruby mining. Jade mining has been the core business for Htoo Trading, another conglomerate.

But the industry appears to be facing challenges. In addition to volatile international prices of precious stones, intertwined interests among the Myanmar military and armed ethnic minority groups have cast a shadow on the industry.

Jade prices, in particular, have plunged over the past several years due to the government-led anti-corruption campaign in China, the largest jade importer. The northern state of Kachin, known for jade production, has been highlighted often for environmental degradation and human rights abuses, including forced child labor. 

Talent over gems

In her first speech after being appointed as State Counselor in April, Suu Kyi said natural resources in Myanmar will eventually run out, and urged the country to develop its talented young people.

Aung Naing Oo, director general of the Directorate of Investment and Company Administration, has also insisted on the need to lure foreign businesses to the country, particularly manufacturers that could bring jobs and technology transfer opportunities to the country.

The new Myanmar leadership may have already begun shifting its gaze to developing new industries that the country can count on for a prosperous and sustainable future.

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