London-based NGO Global Witness urged the United States government to support reform of Burma’s vast, dirty jade trade following an announcement on Wednesday that the US would lift many of the remaining sanctions on Burma.
Plans to lift economic sanctions on Burma came after State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi met with US President Obama in Washington DC on Wednesday. The US President intends to terminate the national emergency act in respect to Burma—the order that has authorized sanctions since 1997.
In a statement released on Thursday, Global Witness—which documented human rights abuses and environmental impacts due to extraction of natural resources over time in Burma and campaigned for change—said US efforts “must focus on clearing army companies and families out of a sector worth up to US$31 billion in 2014, and support local calls for reform and peace.”
By dropping the sanctions, Juman Kubba of Global Witness said the United States drops its “leverage over the former generals, drug lords and military-owned companies that still secretly control critical industries like jade.”
The US president will lift sanctions which were imposed under five laws and six presidential orders, including the national emergency act—which banned cronies and drug lords from trading with or traveling to the US—, the Burma Freedom and Democracy Act of 2003 and a 2013 presidential order prohibiting certain imports of Burmese jadeite and rubies.
Juman Kubba was quoted in the statement as saying despite efforts by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government led by the State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi to reform the jade sector, “the job is nowhere near complete.”
She said, “The US has invested a great deal, across several administrations, in helping Myanmar turn the page on its past and build a peaceful and prosperous future for its people. This simply won’t happen unless the new government can clear the most notorious figures from that past out of the jade trade – so what is the plan?”
Burma is not a member country of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI)—a global standard for governance in regards to a country’s natural resources—and lacks a clear plan to tackle the number of cronies and military-backed companies benefiting from jade extraction.
Regarding holding cronies accountable, Sai Leik, Shan Nationalities League for Democracy spokesperson, said Parliament is key and that it needs to draft the necessary laws and bylaws.
Activists in Burma have also pushed for transparency in the jade industry, which is majority controlled by the military’s Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited, because ongoing fighting between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burma Army over the control of natural resources continues in the northern part of the country.
Figures on jade production and procurement were not publicly released under the previous quasi-civilian government. U Win Myo Thu, environmentalist and director of local environmental NGO EcoDev, said, “transparency is key to gaining accountability and responsibility of businesspeople in this sector so that big companies will pay [their taxes] and rid themselves of illegal connections. It will help our country’s income, so whether sanctions are removed or not, the country should act on it.”
U Win Myo Thu stated that the current NLD government showed little to no interest in implementing the recommendations made in a Myanmar-EITI report, which was submitted in January. Myanmar-EITI consists of representatives from the government, business and civil society organizations. The group is not currently active as it has not yet been reformed under the new government.
“It is not only about jade extraction. It is also related to the peace building process,” he said.
U Win Myo Thu said he hopes the removal of sanctions will benefit smaller companies with no record of human rights violations trade with the United States and Europe.
But he warned that the industry would suffer if crony companies could expand their markets to the US while continuing to commit human rights violations inside the country. He added that he believes US technology can closely examine these trades to ensure they are in line with their standards and policies.