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The Whole World Was Watching
Posted on Jan 22, 2008
Stillman: But how much was the regime able to crack down on this activity in September? I read that they tried to cut off cell phone reception and Internet connectivity. ...
Maung Maung: Well, if you look at the number of bloody images from the protests, you can see that the activists found their way around the regime. In the beginning, the junta didn’t know what the hell was happening. Young people were running around with their hand-held mobile phones and passing on photographs to people outside the country. They were two steps ahead.
The regime controlled the gateway to the Internet—it was really more of an Intra-net than an Internet—and they tried to shut it down, but the young people were breaking out for themselves, using their brains to get around the regime’s barriers.
Stillman: I’d like to get your take on some U.S. legislative issues. Last month, Congress passed legislation authored by Rep. Tom Lantos that would cut off tax deductions for business activities in Burma by U.S. companies, such as Chevron. The bill will also block the current laundering of Burmese gemstones, particularly rubies, through third countries before they are sold here. If these new measures get signed by President Bush and become law, how big a blow will they be to the military regime?
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If you want to do mining for gems or jade in Burma, you have to buy permission from the military’s own holdings company, so your very first investment in the project, even before you start digging, goes directly to the government. You also have to give a certain percentage of your profits to the government once you sell the gems, along with an export tax. So to get a single ruby into the global marketplace, you have to feed money to the government at least three times.
That’s why it’s so important that Burma’s gem and jade business be shut down. A long time ago, before I became an activist, I was a gemologist. I worked for the Burmese government for 12 years, so I know the business well, and I know that Burma has the best gems in the world. In order to get around the sanctions that were placed on Burmese gems [in 2003], they are bought by the Thai traders, recut in Thailand, and resold as “Thai” exports.
But any gemologist can look at a collector’s piece and see immediately that it’s come from Burma. You can’t lie about what we call “internal inclusions,” which are always unique to the site of mining: air bubbles, gas bubbles, rubies within rubies. A gem that is mined in, say, Dupont Circle, would be very different from a gem that is mined in Rockville. So you can identify the origins of a gem, if you bother to try.
Although the Thai exporters will continue to claim that their rubies are coming from Thailand, most of the top-quality gemstones are still coming from Burma, and we need to close up these legal loopholes. I think this new piece of legislation is just the beginning.
Stillman: China has significant influence with the Burmese military regime, given its extensive trade and military ties to the junta. And China has blocked meaningful actions by the U.N. Security Council on Burma. What would you like to see done to pressure China on Burma? Some have urged a boycott of the Olympic Games this summer. ....
Maung Maung: We’re not calling for a boycott of the Olympics. First of all, the Olympics are time-bound. They come and they go in 2008. Second of all, the athletes have spent their whole lives preparing for this event, and we want to respect that.
Having said that, what we need is to inform China that a stable Burma is good for everybody. We are not looking to kick up China’s investments in Burma; we’re looking at a system that would allow democratic participation for everybody in Burma’s politics and economics, and, therefore, greater stability.
Stillman: And what about India? It, too, could have an impact on the regime, and while China is repressive in its own right, India is a democracy that ought to play a constructive role but hasn’t—due to its energy interests, it seems.
Maung Maung: Being a large democracy, India is a very bulky animal to move around—the bureaucracy is so big that it’s hard to tell what’s going on. They were supportive of the pro-democracy movement earlier, but we don’t know what shifts have taken place. It seems like energy and gas availability from Burma has made India more willing to get comfortable with the regime.
Once again, we need to emphasize: Democracy in Burma is the best way to ensure that the raw energy that Indian needs comes from a stable and reliable source.
Stillman: How effective do you think the various targeted sanctions by the U.S. are on the regime’s top leaders: the ban on travel visas, restrictions on bank accounts and so on?
Maung Maung: It’s making the regime go crazy. I must point out that, except from the U.S., there have been no sanctions from anybody. Some people say that sanctions haven’t worked, but I want to challenge them: Excuse me, but can you tell me who has even tried to place forceful sanctions on Burma? Europeans, mostly, have not. European countries have visa bans, but nothing to strike at the heart of the economic issues. It’s only the United States that has done anything substantive. We have to thank the U.S. customs people and other authorities for following up on [presidential] executive orders.
As small as they are, the financial sanctions are making a huge economic impact. The man I mentioned earlier—Tay Za—owned an airline called Air Bagan. It flew to Singapore and Thailand, and the military generals were very proud of it. But then the financial scrutiny hit Tay Za, and the banks in Singapore refused to handle his money. The French, too, stopped servicing his planes, and Tay Za eventually had to give up the enterprise.
The business community in Singapore is scrutinizing Burmese accounts more harshly than ever before. There have been complaints from Burmese merchants about it. We know it’s making a big difference.
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