First, Conflict Diamonds; now, Junta Jade?

I know; the j in junta is pronounced like an h. Regardless, The Christian Science Monitor asks “Who’s buying Burma’s gems?: Laura Bush’s campaign for a global boycott is being undone by China’s appetite for Olympic souvenirs made of Burmese jade.” The US First Lady argues that those of you purchasing precious gems from Burma are indirectly supporting the rule of the brutal military dictatorship in that southeast Asian country.

burma_jade.jpgIt’s the last hour of the last day of the gems auction in Rangoon, and tired buyers are fanning themselves with worn auction catalogs, and making their final bids.

Over the past five days, jade, rubies, sapphires, and close to $150 million have passed hands here, according to the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., the consortium that dominates Burma’s gemstone trade and is owned by the defense ministry and a clutch of military officers.

Who’s buying? China, India, Singapore, and Thailand are scooping up Burma’s stones. US first lady Laura Bush’s efforts at a global boycott of Burma’s gems seem to have done little to reduce China’s appetite for Burmese jade to make trinkets and souvenirs to sell at the Summer Olympics.

At this recent auction, 281 foreigners attended, leaving behind much-needed foreign currency and generally turning the auction into a resounding success, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

Mrs. Bush – and human rights campaigners – would not be pleased.

The first lady has taken on the military regime in Burma (Myanmar), urging jewelers not to buy gems from a country where the undemocratic rulers and their cronies amass fortunes selling off the country’s stones, as well as many of the county’s other natural resources – such as minerals, timber, gold, oil, and gas – but keep Burma’s citizens in abject poverty.

She has urged UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to act more forcibly on Burma and stood beside President Bush on several occasions recently as he announced the growing list of US sanctions on the country. And, on International Human Right’s Day this past December, Mrs. Bush added her voice to those seeking a global boycott on gems from Burma.

“Consumers throughout the world should consider the implications of their purchase of Burmese gems,” she said in a statement from the White House. “Every Burmese stone bought, cut, polished, and sold sustains an illegitimate, repressive regime.”

Earlier in the semester, we read an article [which he has made available to the general publilc on his web site] by Richard Snyder on the link between “lootable wealth” and political stability. In fact, the final section of his paper deals explicitly with the Burmese tropical timber trade and its role in funding rebel groups. What are the implications of Snyder’s argument for how we–as potential consumers of junta jade–should respond to Laura Bush’s plea? Of course the two phenomena are not exactly the same (Snyder is seeking to understand the link between “lootable wealth” political stability, while Laura Bush is arguing that “lootable wealth” supports dictatorial rule.) Here is the abstract to Snyder’s article:

This article proposes a political economy of extraction framework that explains political order and state collapse as alternative outcomes in the face of lootable wealth. Different types of institutions of extraction can be built around lootable resources – with divergent effects on political stability. If rulers are able to forge institutions of extraction that give them control over revenues generated by lootable resources, then these resources can contribute to political order by providing the income with which to govern. In contrast, the breakdown or absence of such institutions increases the risk of civil war by making it easier for rebels to organize. The framework is used to explain two puzzling cases that experienced sharply contrasting political trajectories in the face of lootable resources: Sierra Leone and Burma. A focus on institutions of extraction provides a stronger understanding of the wide range of political possibilities – from chaos, to dictatorship, to democracy – in resource-rich countries.

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