Myanmar’s military government has opened its latest auction of jade and gems, attracting hundreds of buyers seeking to tap into the country’s natural wealth, state media said Wednesday.

The auction opened Tuesday with 308 lots of gems and 943 lots of jade up for sale both through bidding and through direct negotiation, the official New Light of Myanmar said.

More than 550 merchants were registered at the four-day event, including 162 foreigners, the paper added.

The paper gave no other details about the sales, which have become increasingly important sources of revenue for the military that has ruled this country for 45 years.

The biggest sale last year earned the regime some 124 million dollars in October, according to local media.

The auctions used to be held twice a year to curb the flow of precious stones into the country’s enormous black market, which economists believe is at least half the size of the formal economy.

Neighboring China and Thailand have become the biggest customers at the sales, which were held four times in 2006.

Myanmar is one of the world’s poorest nations and is subject to US and European economic sanctions because of human rights abuses and the house arrest of 61-year-old democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The impact of the sanctions has been weakened, however, by the eagerness of neighboring China, India and Thailand to tap Myanmar’s vast natural wealth to fuel their own growing economies.