Burma, Gemstones & Despots

Burma is one the world’s leading suppliers of fine ruby as well as jade, peridot, sapphire, and spinel.
Burma is one the world’s leading suppliers of fine ruby as well as jade, peridot, sapphire, and spinel.

The country of Burma is a lush and beautiful land consisting of people from many different ethnic groups. It possesses some of the finest and most precious gem resources on the planet. It is also home to one of the most repressive, totalitarian regimes currently in power.

After taking over the government in a coup d’etat in 1962, the military government, in the face of an increasingly popular democratic uprising, subsequently declared an election in 1990. Its political wing lost by a landslide to Aung San Suu Kyi and her pro-democracy party (the National League for Democracy).

However, the ruling military junta (the ironically named State Peace and Development Council) refused to cede power and has escalated the repression and human rights abuses in this country to an appalling level. After years of attempts by several world organizations including the United Nations, to resolve the dispute, the regime remains unmoved.

As a result, the United States government in 2003, ceding to pressure from many human rights groups, implemented a trade embargo against the current government of Burma until democracy is restored and political prisoners, including Suu Kyi, are released. (To avoid confusion, the use of the traditional name of the country will be used rather than “Myanmar”, which is the “new” name imposed by the military government.)

As mentioned, Burma is one the world’s leading suppliers of fine ruby (as well as jade, peridot, sapphire, and spinel.) With blurred borders and little official concern for true country of origin, one key point separates these Burmese-origin stones from the stigmatized “conflict diamonds” of unknown origin. Unlike a diamond, a colored stone’s country of origin can be ascertained with reasonable certainty. (In some cases laboratory analysis is necessary, but frequently color and inclusion characteristics will suffice.) This is one of the keys in upholding the standards initially set by these U.S. trade sanctions and the even larger global boycott.

Pressure from certain key members of the jewelry industry and negligence on the part of the U.S. government in enforcing these sanctions has led to a troubling turn. In December of 2004, U.S. Customs issued a ruling that any gemstone of Burmese origin cut outside of Burma (as is common) has been “significantly transformed” and is therefore no longer considered an item of Burmese origin and is therefore not considered a sanctioned item. Despite overwhelming evidence of the military regime’s near-total control of the gem trade, many jewelers rejoiced in this ruling and have openly resumed the sale of Burmese gemstones (several never stopped, as smuggling is rife between Thailand and Burma), in many cases selling them as “Burmese rubies” since stones with that origin have historically commanded a higher price.

Despite this ruling on the part of U.S. Customs, Leber Jeweler Inc continues to boycott the purchase of any stones of Burmese origin and honor the spirit of the sanctions. We have several fine sources of stones from countries such as Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, and Malawi whose gems rival the beauty of the fabled Burmese gemstone material, which means our customers are still able to obtain exquisite quality precious stones without supporting a brutal government in Burma.

We do not wish to turn our backs on the people of Burma who are direct victims of this horrific regime. (Which was part of our inspiration in organizing the Jewelers’ Burma Relief Project.) It has been the wish of the duly elected pro-democracy party to have the outside world implement sanctions as a means to stimulate positive change with Burma, so we will work toward assisting with humanitarian efforts while steadfastly honoring this trade embargo.

It is our hope that the current regime will seek a remedy to their actions that have caused these sanctions and begin a genuine reform with Burma. Until then, we stand firmly by the boycott of all Burmese origin gems.

The Jewelers’ Burma Relief Project, founded in 2004 by Leber Jeweler Inc, works in partnership with the Foundation for the People of Burma and Planet Care to provide humanitarian aid to Burmese people of all ethnic backgrounds and religious beliefs.

ADDITIONAL READING

Banned! Burmese Gems in the Crossfire

Myanmar: Gem Paradise Human Rights Hell