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Mandalay’s Ko-Thwe Rubies

It seems that nothing unpleasant can be heard about Myanmar nowadays. Formerly known as Burma, this exotic Southeast Asian country was once a jewel in the British Empire – a fascinatingly exotic land that was the world’s largest exporter of rice, a global supplier of oil, a nation rich with natural and labour resources, producing 75 percent of the world’s teak, and the wealthiest realm in this corner of the earth. Today, it is being called “Asia’s last frontier”.

One rare, shining glow the colour of ko-thwe (pigeon’s blood) is Myanmar’s ruby industry. Supplying 90 percent of world demand, rubies prized for their purity and hue comprise the biggest earner in the country’s total sales of precious stones, which include sapphires, pearls and jades. One of the country’s most viable industries that also includes agricultural goods, textiles, wood products, construction materials, metals, oil and natural gas, the trade in precious stones continues to flourish. In fact, several years ago, during the annual gem show traditionally held in Yangon, a total of 2,380 gem merchants, including 1,484 of 423 companies from 16 countries and regions, coughed up US$101 million in gem purchases, which at the time broke the record held since the show was introduced almost 50 years ago. It was the conduct of these gem shows, officially dubbed the “Myanmar Gem Trade and Pearl Emporium”, which has earned for Myanmar international renown as “Ruby Land”.

Needless to say, Myanmar’s previous military rulers depended on sales of precious stones to fund their regime; they had to release their stranglehold on the industry to ensure a continuous inflow of funds. In the early 1980s, the government started taking great strides towards enhancing gem and jewellery sales by opening up its activities through purchases of gems and jewellery from private dealers or owners at acceptable prices. Then, it encouraged privatisation by allowing private owners to exhibit their gems for sale at the annual emporiums, and those who attained substantial sales success were permitted to open foreign currency accounts with the banks. Also, it started quality inspections of private shops and allowed those who passed to sell their items in foreign currencies. Finally, gem trading centres were licensed to openly sell jewellery with 15 percent tax paid to the government. Private trading and export of gems has thus become simple and legal for the first time in over 30 years. To drive the gem mining industry towards greater growth, Myanmar enacted the “New Gemstone Law” in 1995, which allowed local entrepreneurs to mine, produce, transport and sell finished gemstone and manufactured jewellery at home and abroad. Since 2000, the government has undertaken joint ventures with ten private companies in the mining of gems and jade on a profit sharing basis.

Myanmar has three famous gem lands well known for producing the country’s nine gems – ruby, diamond, cat’s eye, emerald, topaz, pearl, sapphire, coral and a variety of garnet tinged with yellow. One is at Mongshu in Shan State and another at Phakant in Kachin State. But, the temple of the very rare ko-thwe rubies is at Mogok, a most scenic area consisting of heavily petrified hills rising to a height of 2,347 metres above sea level. Mogok is within the district hosting the nation’s second largest city – Mandalay – Upper Myanmar’s economic hub and the centre of Burmese culture, the fabled city that inspired classic poetry by Rudyard Kipling, books and essays by George Orwell and songs by Frank Sinatra, the Beatles’ George Harrison, Robbie Williams and the Eagles, to name a few. Just as Mandalay is legendary, so is Mogok’s ko-thwe ruby.

Gemological circles all around the world choose Myanmar as the one exotic country with the world’s choicest coloured gemstones, “Burmese” rubies are the standard by which any ruby is judged, as the case is with top quality sapphires, spinels, peridots and jadeite jades. Mogok rubies are readily regarded as being in a class of their own. As one gemologist described it, “The best Mogok stones actually glow red and appear as though Mother Nature brushed a broad swath of fluorescent red paint across the face of the stone. This is the carbuncle of the ancients, a term derived from the glowing embers of a fire… The colour most coveted today is that akin to a red traffic signal or stoplight. It is a glowing red colour, due to the strong red fluorescence of Burmese rubies, and is unequalled elsewhere in the world of gemstones… It must be stressed that the true pigeon’s blood red is extremely rare, more a colour of the mind than the material world. One Burmese trader expressed it best when he said: “Asking to see the pigeon’s blood is like asking to see the face of God.”

Old Problems

Be that as it may, Mogok’s ko-thwe rubies, alongside Myanmar’s prized coloured gemstones, had faced the threat of trade disruption from international powers. The US had branded Myanmar an “outpost of tyranny”, lambasted the ruling military junta for its “extremely poor human rights record”, and accused the military of murder, rape and other torture. Three of its presidents shunned Myanmar’s dictatorship, and then President Bush signed a law in 2003 banning the import of Myanmar products. On the other hand, some gem dealer members of the International Coloured Gemstone Association criticised the US sanctions as “depriving Myanmar’s citizens of economic growth needed to fuel an eventual democracy”, called the policy “duplicitous because it punishes Myanmar while the US runs trade deficits with more repressive regimes, such as China’s.” Meanwhile, neighbours in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have advised Myanmar it risks putting the group’s cohesion on the line if political reforms aren’t made. Bulgari,

Tiffany and Cartier are among US and European jewellery companies that refused to import Myanmar gems based on reports of deplorable working conditions in the mines, while Human Rights Watch supported a complete ban on the purchase of Burmese gems based on these reports and because nearly all of the profits went to the ruling junta.

There is hope, though, at the end of long, dark Myanmar tunnel. Myanmar leaders showed willingness to open diplomatic talks with the US to resolve the issues brought up by Americans, especially in regard to political prisoners and human rights. It will be such a waste to stop the treasures of Myanmar drawing to them the businessmen of modern times, as it did the merchants of Venice centuries ago. To let this gem of an industry reach full potential will require the further opening up of the economy, a vital factor in the development of Myanmar in the years to come. Then, the world can truly cherish the magical experience of once more treading the open road to enchanting Mandalay.