Burmese Gem Smuggling

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

The Friendship Bridge has a constant stream of pedestrian traffic, and at least as many people are crossing the river on inner tubes or in small boats. And in the dry season the two months both sides of New Years many just wade through the knee-deep water.

The Thai military keeps an eye on the movement but makes no effort to stop the traffic. The Thai immigration net starts with a check point nearly 10 kilometers (six miles) inside the country. And at that point they are more concerned with people entering illegally than the movement of goods.

And the crossing into Mae Sot is only one spot along the 2,107-kilometer
(1,309.8-mile) border.

Thai law requires import duty on precious stones, and police have on occasion arrested people for breaking the law. But it’s rare and when people are charged it is 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 pre-date Thailand becoming a global cutting and polish center for colored stones. Now most stones are imported for value-added work then exported again, so Thailand makes money from the business and the duty charge doesn’t help encourage bringing stones to Thailand. For some time when Thailand produced its own rough from mines near Cambodia and Myanmar, they didn’t need the imported goods. Now though, with their own mines dried up, the rough has to 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 without duties to the United States.

But, Thailand has not changed their laws to accommodate their gems and jewelry industry; so the duty charges remain. And duties add cost, and smuggling is easy and cheap, but adds one more obstacle in an arduous and risky business.
That is the smuggling on the Thai side, in Myanmar it’s more difficult.

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

He said the trickiest part is in Myanmar itself where the over-bearing military government wants their take and imposes an export tax on all stones. gemtv  The generals have made efforts to increase gem sales within the country so more of the money stays in Myanmar.

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

But the seller in Chanthaburi said vast amounts of stones continue to be smuggled out of Myanmar, with a lot of people involved carrying small amounts.
Some deliver to buyers at the border, and others bring the stones to market in Thailand themselves.

It’s hard to get details of how things are moved within 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 travel by all means. Even the soldiers smuggle stones. And some of the ethnic armies that have signed peace deals with the Yangon generals are involved, too. In fact smuggling occurs at virtually every level.

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

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


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