Burma and Blood Gems

Burma Blood Gems and a Regime’s Quest for Cash

burma_bloodgems_photo*On July 29, 2008 the President of the United States signed into law the Tom Lantos Block Burmese JADE Act of 2008, which cleared both the House of Representatives and Senate by a unanimous vote. This legislation bans the importation of all Burmese rubies and jade into the United States. For several years, Brian Leber has been traveling to Washington DC to work with legislators and to raise awareness of this issue. Last Fall, he testified before Congress as part of our company’s ongoing efforts to help create this legislation to aid the people of Burma in their time of need. This new law is an important victory and a major step forward. We extend our deepest gratitude to the non-governmental organizations, Congressional staffers, and members of Congress who made this legislation possible.

There is no doubt. The country of Burma is the source of many of the finest gemstones our planet has to offer. But there is one glaring problem that takes away from the beauty these stones possess.

Since 1962 Burma has been under the iron grasp of one of the most brutal regimes on the planet. Renamed “Myanmar” by the ironically named State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), this military government has imprisoned the country’s duly elected leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in addition to committing an endless list of human rights violations against the people of Burma. When situations like this exist anywhere on the globe, we all must take notice. When a government with no limit to its brutality reaches into the gem trade, as a business and as global citizens we at Leber Jeweler Inc. feel an obligation to take action.

Years ago we made the conscious decision not to purchase any gemstones known to be of Burmese origin. Over 90% of the world’s rubies along with a large number of sapphire, spinel, jade, and peridot originate from this troubled country. We at Leber Jeweler Inc. feel the ethics of origin are as important as the physical attributes of any gemstone. It was an easy decision to follow this course.

Last year, the regime in Burma raised $562 million USD from the government-run gem auctions,1 up from $297 million USD one year prior.2 There is no doubt many more stones fall through the cracks and find other routes out of Burma, further enriching the senior military officers who run Burma. (Decades ago ethnic minorities were deeply involved in the smuggling of gems but with the border areas heavily controlled by the regime and large numbers of the oppressed minority groups in refugee camps or trapped within their own country as internally displaced people, their role in this trade has diminished exponentially.) With the regime holding a majority share in every mine operation and an often stated goal of gaining control of the gem trade as it is a source of much-needed cash, there is no doubt that Burmese gemstones offer either direct or indirect assistance to the SPDC.

Is it illegal to sell Burmese gemstones? Despite the fact in 2003 the US Congress enacted sanctions that ban the importation into the United States of any item from Burma, unscrupulous gem dealers have exploited a loophole in trade regulations that states if a gemstone is cut or polished in a third party country, it is no longer considered a product of Burma. As Burma exports virtually all its gem material uncut, this ruling rendered Burmese gemstones exempt from the sanctions.

We at Leber Jeweler Inc believe in both the letter and the spirit of this law and strongly endorse a ban on the importation of all gems originating from Burma. Sadly, only a small handful of jewelers support or understand this position. Despite limited support from the jewelry trade, we continue to work hard alongside lawmakers in Washington DC to ban the import of Burmese rubies and jade. (The company president, Brian Leber, testified before a Congressional committee in 2007 on the need for legislation.) With persistence and determination, our efforts will succeed.

We do believe in the people of Burma and their right to a self- determined, democratically elected government. We also believe that our industry has a debt of obligation to the Burmese citizens whose country and labors have historically offered us many of the gemstones with which we earn our livings. In 2004 we formed the Jewelers’ Burma Relief Project to offer humanitarian aid to those suffering from the brutality of the military regime that is in control of their country. We work with members of the US Congress, non-governmental organizations, and members of our own industry who share in our concern for these issues. We continue to use our voice via the media both domestically and internationally to raise awareness of Burma’s plight. We believe one day the people of Burma will have a democratically elected government. Until that day, Burma’s gemstones and other valuable resources should remain in the earth until the people of Burma and not a brutal military regime can benefit from the vast treasures their land possesses.

As consumers, it is important for you to shop wisely when purchasing any gemstone, especially those that may have originated from countries like Burma. Express your concerns about these very relevant issues, both to jewelers and to your Congressman if you’re so inclined. Your buying decisions speak volumes and go a long way towards supporting the causes of human rights the world over. We each have but a single voice, but with that voice the positive changes we can inspire can be astounding.

1 Yangon City Development, “45th Gems Emporium”, 2/20/08
2 Myanmar Times, June 4-10, 2007, Vol. 19, No. 369

To support groups working to address the humanitarian situation confronting the people of Burma, we refer you to these fine organizations:

Planet Care/Global Health Access Program

Foundation for the People of Burma

For additional reading and listening on the topic of Burma and gemstones, we refer you to the following:

Chicago Public Radio Worldview, hosted by Jerome McDonnell, interview with Brian Leber, August 7, 2008

Chicago Public Radio Worldview, hosted by Jerome McDonnell, interview with Brian Leber, Dec 4, 2007

“Signs of Slump at Gem Sale in Myanmar”, New York Times, Nov 16, 2007

“Myanmar Rubies Have Dealers Seeing Red”, AP, Nov 16, 2007

“Myanmar’s Rubies: Bloody Colour, Bloody Business”, Reuters, October 4, 2007

“World Ruby Sales Bankroll Burma’s Regime”, October 1, 2007

“Blood Rubies Bankroll Burmese Junta”, September 30, 2007

“Senator Obama Statement on Burma”, September 26, 2007

“Burma’s Poor Pay for Foreign Gem Demand”, Telegraph UK, July 23, 2007

“The Burma Regime and the Gemstone Trade”, BBC World Service, July 5, 2007

Press Release 7/29/08:
Burma Gem Sanctions Signed into Law

Press Release 10/10/07:
Burmese Gem Ban