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Gem dealers eye the glittering prize

Gem dealers eye the glittering prize

P ailin is beckoning. Experienced gem dealers scoff at the notion that the precious

stones there are now scarce - and they can't wait to return. Sally Virgoe

reports from Battambang.

IN the backyard of a neat bungalow a few kilometers outside Battambang, gem dealer

Moa Varn (right) carefully lays out $22,000 worth of Pailin stones onto a vinyl picnic


There are hundreds of rubies in sparkling pyramids, ranging from the most valuable

"chicken blood" grade one stones to those darker which purists say contain

too much black to be truly precious.

He arranges piles of blue sapphires and the rarer yellow variety, all containing

minor flecks and flaws that confirm they are genuine Cambodian jewels, not artificial

copies known by Khmers as "Sri Lankan" gems.

Buy them all and you have acquired a $22,000 bargain, as these stones are worth at

least ten times that amount on the world market, according to recent overseas valuations.

They are but a tiny sample of the millions of dollars worth of gems reportedly mined

every year in and around Pailin, nearly all of which are traded over the Thai border,

says Varn.

"At the moment the gems do not belong to Cambodia, they belong to Thailand,"

he says sadly. "Only the smaller sized stones of high quality make it through

KR territory direct to the Cambodian market."

If recent information released by Battambang's military and provincial officials

is to be believed Pailin will soon be re-captured, and the government is apparently

confident that this time the town can be held.

As for who will claim the glittering prize of the Khmer gem industry, preliminary

discussions reportedly are well underway between Battambang officials and Thai investors.

Personally, Varn is hoping Pailin will return to the good ol' days when individuals

traveled freely to the west and mined indiscriminately, without permits or government


In the meantime he is able to run a reasonably healthy trade, and currently sells

gems bought before the start of the latest dry season fighting from villager "friends"

who regularly travel to Pailin. However the majority of Varn's stock is part of a

huge cache he bought in Pailin two years ago during the fleeting three week occupation

of the town by Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF).

"I am afraid of the Khmer Rouge so I don't go to Pailin now. But right now it

is not so easy to have contact with the friends who supply me as the war interferes

with their mobility and the supply routes," says Varn.

"However if you have a friend in Pailin itself acting as a spy for you, he can

take gems over the Thai border and then come over into Cambodian in areas where it

is safe. That is an effective way too."

Varn's former business partner, Chan Huon, who once spent long, dangerous and often

fruitless days by his side digging for stones in the Pailin forests during he 1960s,

looks at his mate's wares with a sharply appraising eye.

Huon, a trainee judge who will soon be presiding over one of Cambodia's provincial

courtrooms, has not worked the mines or sold gems since Pol Pot's forces drove everyone

out of Pailin in 1975. Yet he says the day the town falls to the RCAF is the day

he gives up his $20 a month legal position and returns to the hidden fortunes of

the gem field.

"All that talk recently of a shortage of gems in Pailin is just nonsense,"

says Huon. "The areas where you can find stones covers 100 square kilometers.

It is huge and there initial taste of the gem industry was anything but glamorous

or lucrative."

It was in the late 1950s when both men were in their late teens, that they were first

lured to Pailin from their Battambang home. However their initial taste of the gem

industry was anything but glamorous or lucrative.

Armed with a single pick ax each, Varn and Huon remember clearly the hundreds of

times they walked the 10km path from Pailin to the mine fields - to Som Loth and

Boss Mom for rubies, and Bor Lang for sapphires and rubies.

Amid swarms of mosquitoes carrying a highly potent malaria strain and tens of thousands

of other starry-eyed young workers, they started to dig.

"In the beginning, we were extremely poor," says Huon. "Many people

died not only from malaria, but because mine tunnels collapsed on top of them."

"Usually it took us a week to dig a ten-meter deep shaft and then we would burrow

outwards from the bottom, like the pattern made by the spokes of a wheel. No wood

supports were used on any of the tunnels so it was highly dangerous."

Miners also struck cavities in the rock that were full of poisonous gases and some

were killed in those incidents," Varn recalls.

According to Huon, the ground surface of the mines held no clues as to where concentrated

patches of the gems could be found. He says like the majority of miners, he worked

for a gem dealer based in Pailin who supplied him with food, clothing and medicine.

In return, all the stones he unearthed were the property of the dealer.

"In one year in the mid-60s, I did not find any stones at all. Not a thing,

so this shows why we needed the dealers to support us," said Huon.

"But for example, if I found a reasonable stone worth about 10,000 riel, I received

only about 2,000 of that and that stone would be sold for 100,000 riel. We lived

like slaves," says Varn.

They both dabbled in dealing stones themselves during the late-60s, but became fully

fledged players in the trade after one memorable day mining in 1973. While chasing

a promising looking vein of blue sapphire through the rock, Huon dug out a perfectly

clear 52 carat beauty.

He reckons the huge stone, which he describes as having a diameter longer than the

pad of his thumb, would now be worth $21,000 or 50 domlungs of gold in Cambodia alone.

"At that time, I didn't have much experience selling stones so I sold it for

only 1,500,000 million riel. I should have received five to six million for it."

"You see, the culture of the diggers in the mine fields was to be very secretive

about your finds and not to discuss with anyone what you should sell it for. I hid

the rock in my mouth when I found it, did not tell anyone - and got the wrong price,"

he said philosophically.

The value of this one sapphire gave them the capital to abandon the mine shafts and

start dealing in earnest. It is the only concrete account these two men will give

of their financial affairs. All other requests for information on the profitability

of Pailin's gem industry are met, not surprisingly, with vague expressions and protests

of memory loss.

However, their young yet thriving business was shut down and all their savings lost

when Pol Pot and his army swept through the country. Varn eventually returned to

hands-on work in the Pailin mine fields in 1987 when the Vietnamese regime made it

possible for Cambodians to return to the gem industry. After a few months he settled

back in Battambang and started the dealing business he currently runs from his large

suburban home.

Meanwhile Huon travels regularly between law lectures in the capital and his modest

commune home just outside Battambang, and on each journey the sight of the silty

Sangkai river through the taxi window reminds him of where he really wants to be.

Intensive mining by the Khmer Rouge 70 kms upstream in Pailin have muddied the waters

of the river. What used to be known by locals as the "blue river", now

runs permanently brown.

Regardless of who claims the prize of Pailin, as the dust of the current dry season

offensive settles, one can be certain that the present color of the river will not



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