The southeastern corner where Thailand meets the Cambodian border has been an important source of fine ruby and sapphire for hundreds of years. The story of mining in this region has two sides, depending on which side of the border you happen to be on.
On the Thai side of the border, mining activity reached its peak in the 1970s and 1980s in Chanthaburi and Trat provinces. In the early 1960s, Ne Win seized power in Burma in a military coup. He took control of the famed Mogok ruby mines, and the world was forced to look elsewhere for ruby. They looked to Thailand, since Thailand had the largest supply of facetable material, though the Thai ruby tended to be a dark garnet-like red.
On the Cambodian side of the border, Pailin was a prosperous town due to its extensive gem deposits. Unfortunately those resources attracted the attention of the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian Communists who mounted an insurgency against the national government in 1967 and succeeded in taking power in 1975 under their notorious leader Pol Pot. They ruled for only 4 years until they were ousted by the Vietnamese army in 1979. The short-lived Khmer Rouge regime was distinguished by a radical form of agrarian collectivism and the genocide of an estimated 1.5 million people.
The rare blue sapphires of the Pailin area were very highly regarded in the gem trade. They ranged in color from light to deep blue, but with a distinctive purity and intensity of color. Many dealers rated them almost as highly as Kashmir or Burmese sapphire, and above Ceylon, Thai and Australian sapphire. The Khmer Rouge used proceeds from mining Pailin sapphire to fund their offensive, and later their government once they gained national power. It is sad to say that Pailin sapphire was one of the first "blood gemstones".
When the Vietnamese army threw the Khmer Rouge from power in 1979, the Khmer Rouge retreated to Pailin, which remained their last stronghold until very recently. From September 2007, Pailin's surviving Khmer Rouge leaders were finally rounded up to face justice by an international tribunal. Pol Pot himself died in 1998. He had lived in Trat province in Thailand for 6 years in the 1980s under the protection of the Thai military. He went to China for medical treatment in 1986, finally retreating to a hut in the jungle in Northern Cambodia where he died, probably by suicide, just before he was to be arrested.
Sapphire mining was unfortunately not the only type of mining that was carried out in Pailin. Pailin was one of the most heavily landmined areas in the world. Even today, travellers are cautioned to stay on marked roads. The work to remove dangerous land mines is an ongoing effort with the help of the United Nations. As far as the Pailin sapphires are concerned, they are only rarely found on the market; it is believed that the Khmer Rouge completely exhausted the sapphire mines in Pailin.
- First Published: March-08-2010
- Last Updated: July-04-2017
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