US Congress panel approves Myanmar gem curbs

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WASHINGTON, Oct 23 (Reuters) A key US congressional congressional approved today legislation tightening sanctions and visa bans on Myanmar's military junta and targeting the country's lucrative gemstone exports.

Exiled Myanmar activists welcomed the Block Burmese JADE (Junta's Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act -- the latest of a set of US moves following last month's violent crackdown on pro-democracy protesters -- but urged Washington to go after the bank accounts of junta generals and allied businessmen.

The amendment, which passed the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs without opposition, expands sanctions imposed in 2003 that halted US trade with Myanmar to prohibit the sale in the United States of rubies, jade and other gems routed through Myanmar's neighbors.

''Millions of dollars in gemstones that are exported from Burma ultimately enter the United States but the Burmese regime attempts to conceal the origin of the gemstones in an effort to evade the sanctions,'' read the bipartisan amendment.

It noted that while 90 per cent of the world's ruby supply comes from the country formerly known as Burma, only 3 per cent of rubies that enter the United States have been identified as originating from that Southeast Asian state.

MAJOR LIFELINE The new amendment prohibits imports of gemstones, pearls, rough and unfinished minerals originating in Myanmar, including both loose stones and finished jewelry.

The amendment also expands the number of Myanmar military and government officials and business figures subject to bans on US visas and freezes of assets held in the United States.

''Gems and timber are a major lifeline of the Burmese generals and their cronies, so blocking such imports through third countries will be very effective,'' said Aung Din, executive director of the US Campaign for Burma, a Washington-based advocacy group.

The exiled student leader urged Washington to impose tough banking sanctions similar to US measures in 2005 that targeted money laundering by North Korea to ''cut the illegal earnings of the generals and their families and cronies.'' Last week, President George W Bush expanded US sanctions against Myanmar's rulers, adding about two dozen leaders, individuals and entities to a list already facing sanctions, and ordered a tightening of US export controls on Myanmar.

The suppression of the Buddhist monk-led street protests in Myanmar last month killed 10 people, according to the military junta. Western governments say the toll was probably much higher.

Reuters AK VP0222

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