WASHINGTON – The House approved a bill Tuesday meant to stop Myanmar's rubies and high-quality jade from entering the United States. It tightens already tough sanctions against a ruling regime that killed peaceful protesters and Buddhist monks in September.
The bill's sponsors said they want to stop the military leaders in Myanmar, also known as Burma, from dodging U.S. sanctions by laundering gemstones in third countries before selling them in the U.S. International outrage at the September crackdown failed to spur change, lawmakers said, but fresh sanctions would hurt the regime by curbing profit from the gem trade.
"Burma's generals fund this repression of their own people by selling off the country's natural resources, especially oil and gems, leaving the Burmese people in poverty," Democratic Rep. Tom Lantos said in a statement. Tightened sanctions would "ensure that the United States stands up to these thugs."
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Myanmar has responded to the world's calls for an improved human rights record "with empty gestures aimed only at gaining time for it to reinforce the status quo."
To avoid U.S. sanctions, the Myanmar regime tries to hide the origin of the gemstones it ships to America, according to the bill, which passed by voice vote: "For example, over 90 percent of the world's ruby supply originates in Burma, but only 3 percent of the rubies entering the United States are claimed to be of Burmese origin."
The bill would also stop Myanmar's leaders from using U.S. financial institutions in third countries to launder their money. Officials involved in the crackdown would be banned from getting U.S. visas, as would their families. The bill would also cut off tax deductions for U.S. companies working in Myanmar.
Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate. A single version of the bill would have to be approved by both chambers of Congress before it could be sent to President Bush for his signature into law.
In August, thousands of Buddhist monks joined rallies against a fuel price increase. The junta began shooting and arresting protesters in September. Dissident groups put the death toll at about 200. Rights groups have reported continued arrests and abuse, despite claims by the junta that the crackdown has stopped.
Myanmar has been under military rule since 1962. The current junta came to power after snuffing out a 1988 pro-democracy movement against the previous military dictatorship, killing at least 3,000 people in the process.
Myanmar's natural resources are coveted by its neighbors and by large companies around the world.