The Ban on Burma Ruby and Jade: Latest News

Since 2003, the United States government has banned the importation of gemstones from Burma (Myanmar), especially valuable ruby and jadeite. Though Burma has now made substantial progress towards reform, the sanctions on ruby and jadeite are still in place as of September 2016.

On September 14, 2016 President Obama pledged to lift all remaining sanctions on Burma, and he issued an executive order to that effect in October 2016. It is now legal to import Burmese ruby and jade to the US.

This article provides a short history on the ban on Burmese gems, including the latest news on the sanctions.

Update February 2021: Myanmar military seizes power in a coup, arrests Aung San Suu Kyi. U.S. threatens renewed sanctions. Details below.

 

2003: First Sanctions on Burmese Gems

Map of Burma (Myanmar)
Map of Burma (Myanmar)

In 2003, the United States government banned the import of all gemstones from Burma (Myanmar). This was part of a program of sanctions to put pressure on the military junta that had ignored democratic elections, placed Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest, and persecuted minority groups throughout the country.

However, the 2003 legislation had a rather large loophole. Gems which had been cut and polished outside Burma -- usually in Thailand --  could legally be imported as products of the processing country.

 

2008: New Sanctions on Ruby and Jadeite

In 2008 the Bush administration moved to close this loophole with the passing of new legislation, known as the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta's Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act of 2008. This new legislation prohibited the import of ruby and jadeite mined or extracted from Burma, regardless of where the material was processed. Other gem varieties, such as spinel and zircon were not affected.

The ban on the import of ruby and jadeite has always been controversial, and has been opposed by many people in the gem trade. The concern is that the sanctions did little to limit income to the Burmese junta, since China, their largest trading partner, was a regular customer at government auctions for ruby and jadeite. The sanctions mainly affected small miners and gem traders who sold their gems to Thai dealers.

Burma Ruby Burma Jadeite
 Burma Ruby  Burma Jadeite

 

2010: "Democratic" Elections in Burma

In 2008 the military government introduced a new constitution that guaranteed power for the military and then held so-called democratic elections in 2010. Since Aung San Suu Kyi was barred from participating, her National League for Democracy (NLD) boycotted the election. The elections were viewed as fraudulent by the international community, and the skepticism seem justified when the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party declared victory with more than 80% of the votes.

 

2010-2012: Surprising Reforms in Burma

Aung San Suu Kyi
Aung San Suu Kyi

Much to the suprirse of the international community, the new civilian government, led by a former general, Thein Sein, embarked on a sustained program of reforms. They included the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and hundreds of other political prisoners, economic liberalisation and relaxation of restrictions on labor unions and press censorship. Aung San Suu Kyi and the NLD were allowed to participate in a by-election in April 2011 and won 43 of 45 seats contested. In a very short time, Aung San Suu Kyi went from house arrest to become the leader of the opposition in the Burmese parliament. The US restored diplomatic relations and appointed an ambassador to Burma. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Burma in December 2011 and President Barack Obama followed with a visit in November 2012.

 

November 2012: Sanctions Lifted ... but not on ruby and jadeite

With the normalization of relations between the US and the visits of the President and Secretary of State, one expected that the sanctions against Burma would be lifted. In May 2012, Secretary Clinton announced that US companies would now be permitted to invest in Burma. With the separate visits of Thein Sein and Aung San Suu Kyi to the US in September 2012, the lifting of the ban on Burmese imports seemed imminent. However, an announcement was not made until President Obama's historic visit to Burma in November. On November 16 the Treasury and State Departments announced they were lifting sanctions on a range of Burmese products, but did not include ruby and jadeite in the list. The reason, as we understand it, is that the JADE Act of 2008 requires the approval of Congress to remove the ban. Now we are waiting to see if Congress will take action before the end of 2012. 

Rough Jadeite at Burma Auction
Rough Jadeite at Auction in Burma

 

August 2013: Obama executive order extends ban

On August 7th President Obama signed an executive order that renews the ban on the import of Burmese ruby and jadeite for another year. Though sanctions have been lifted on all other products originating in Myanmar, the continued ban on ruby and jadeite reflects worries about the military’s continuing involvement in the gem industry based in border regions that have seen ongoing conflicts. Washington remains concerned about human rights abuses against ethnic minorities and the role of the army in Myanmar despite democratic reforms that have seen a shift from decades of authoritarian rule.

 

May 2016: US renews ban on Burmese ruby and jadeite despite democratic elections in Burma

In a memorandum dated May 17, President Obama announced that the United States would renew most of the remaining sanctions against Myanmar, including the ban on the importation of Burmese ruby and jadeite. Though a trade embargo against Burma was mostly lifted in 2012 as the country began its transition to democracy, sanctions remain on specific businesses that propped up the former military regime.

Obama noted that Burma has made "significant progress since 2011," including democratic elections and the release of political prisoners but "concerns persist regarding continued obstacles to full civilian control of the government, the ongoing conflict and human rights abuses in the country, particularly in ethnic minority areas, and military trade with North Korea. In addition, Burma's security forces, operating with little oversight from the civilian government, often act with impunity. We are further concerned that prisoners remain detained and that police continue to arrest critics of the government for peacefully expressing their views."

At a news conference with US Secretary of State John Kerry, Aung San Suu Kyi said she believes that the U.S. is keeping some sanctions in place to help the Southeast Asian nation, but will remove them shortly. "We’re not afraid of sanctions," she was quoted as saying. "We’re not afraid of scrutiny. We believe that if we are going along the right path, all sanctions should be lifted in good time."

 

September 2016: President Obama pledges to lift all remaining Burma sanctions

In the very near future, it will once again be possible to import Burma ruby and jadeite to the United States.

The US issued the announcement during a visit by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s leader, whose victory in democratic elections last year was viewed by the Obama administration as a triumph in the president’s strategy of engaging with countries the United States had long shunned.

“In part because of the progress that we’ve seen over the last several months,” Mr. Obama said, “the United States is now prepared to lift sanctions that we have imposed on Burma for quite some time.

“It is the right thing to do in order to ensure that the people of Burma see rewards from a new way of doing business and a new government,” the president said.

Aung San Suu Kyi and President Obama, Sept 14, 2016

 

October 2016: President Obama signs executive order to lift all remaining Burma sanctions

On October 7th President Obama signed an executive order lifting trade sanctions on Burma (Myanmar), including the ban on Burmese ruby and jade. He had announced plans to lift the sanctions on September 14th, during the visit of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to Washington. The order is effective as of October 7th. Click here to read the announcement from the US Treasury Department.

The US Customs and Border Protection stopped enforcing the import prohibition on October 7th, 2016 and updated their rules on October 30, 2017.

 

February 2021: Myanmar military seizes power in a coup, arrests Aung San Suu Kyi

Myanmar coup protest in Bangkok
Protest against the coup at the Myanmar Embassy in Bangkok

After 10 years of democratically elected governments, the military in Myanmar refused to recognize the results of the November 2020 election which was swept by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party with 83% of the vote. In early morning raids on February 1st, just hours before the first session of the new parliament was set to open, the military arrested Suu Kyi and other NLD leaders and declared a state of emergency. Internet and communications were blocked and the military-owned news channel announced that power had been handed to army chief Min Aung Hlaing.

The coup was widely condemned internationally with the United States calling on Myanmar's military leaders to "immediately relinquish the power they have seized, release the activists and officials they have detained, lift all telecommunications restrictions, and refrain from violence against civilians."

U.S. President Joe Biden threatened to review sanctions on Myanmar and issued this statment: "The United States removed sanctions on Burma over the past decade based on progress toward democracy. The reversal of that progress will necessitate an immediate review of our sanction laws and authorities, followed by appropriate action."

 

February 11, 2021: US Introduces Sanctions against 3 Myanmar Gem Companies

On February 11, US President Joe Biden’s administration banned US companies from transacting with three entities that, it claimed, were associated with the perpetrators of the takeover: Myanmar Ruby Enterprise, Myanmar Imperial Jade Co., and Cancri (Gems and Jewellery) Co.

Crucially, the US did not blacklist all gemstones coming out of Myanmar (also known as Burma) — the most important of which are rubies and jade. This contrasts with the old sanctions regime, the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act, which lasted from 2008 until 2016 but attracted criticism for harming the wrong people.

 

Updated March 15, 2021