Brian Leber Testifies Before Congress on Burma Sanctions

This afternoon I offered testimony on the Burma issue during a Congressional hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill organized by the Congressional Human Rights Caucus, The hearing, entitled, “Burma Sanctions: Gems, Oil, and Money.” Covered a range of areas related to the pending legislation.

Brian Leber, President, Leber Jeweler Inc, Testimony to the Congressional Human Rights Caucus:

Historically, Burma has been the source for some of the finest quality gemstones on the planet. It is also home to one of the world’s most despotic regimes.

90% of the world’s rubies and 98% of the world’s jade come from this troubled land, in addition to a wide range of other gemstones including sapphire, spinel, and peridot. A large number of these precious gems find their way into the United States. In return, millions of US dollars find their way back to Burma and into the hands of the ruling generals.

The regime in Burma has near-total control of the gem industry. They hold a majority share in every mine. They issue the licenses and permits for each mining project. They run the gem auctions held in Rangoon. To become a partner in a mine requires either being a senior government official or a close ally of the regime. According to the US State Department, a large number of partners in the mining operations have direct ties to the opium and heroin trade. Those stones that do not find their way to the official government-run auctions are smuggled out of the country, in operations oftentimes run by government officials or by those involved in the illicit drug trade trafficking their goods to both Thailand and China. These operations frequently contribute to greater violence, with many innocent victims suffering the consequences. In the words of one gem dealer with experience buying these smuggled gems on the Thai border, “We’d wait for the smugglers to shoot it out, then buy from whoever was left standing.”

In 2003 the United States Congress passed the Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act, essentially banning the importation of all Burmese gemstones. However, in December of 2004, at the behest of a small coalition of colored gem dealers, US Customs and Border Protection issued a ruling that created an exception stating that Burmese gemstones cut or polished in a third-party country are no longer considered to be Burmese gemstones and, as a result, are allowed to be imported into the United States. Burma has no cutting facilities of their own to speak of, although they have begun efforts to expand into this area. At present, they rely on countries like Thailand, and increasingly, China and India, to cut gemstones for them. Child labor is endemic in gem cutting for all three countries, with children as young as ten exploited for their small hands and young eyes.

Support for the sanctions is growing. Recently, the International Federation for Human Rights and the International Trade Unions Confederation conducted a study to determine the border groups’ opinions of increased sanctions. They found overwhelming approval. In the words of one interviewee, “Sanctions hurt the regime and the crony elite, not the people living from agriculture and the informal economy.”

Trade associations like the Jewelers of America, representing 11,000 members in the US, the international trade group Confédération Internationale de la Bijouterie, Joaillerie et Orfèvrerie, in addition to the Canadian Jewellers Association, have all encouraged their members to cease purchasing gemstones known to be of Burmese origin.  An increasing number of jewelers, including my own company Leber Jeweler Inc, which has refused to purchase Burmese gemstones since 2002, have now taken a stand on the issue. Tiffany & Co., Cartier, Bulgari, and Sterling’s, have all implemented a similar policy.

Gemstones are Burma’s third largest export, officially stated at $297 million USD, but in reality the amount of money generated is much higher as a result of smuggling. The gem trade continues to offer a major source of cash to a regime increasingly desperate for income to maintain their reign of terror over their people.

I have been threatened for speaking out. I have been cautioned to mind my own business as my words pose a threat for those who seek to continue their business relationships tied to the Burmese regime. But any risks I take pale in comparison to the heroic and selfless acts of countless brave monks and civilians who marched and continue to protest for freedom and democracy in their country.

The rubies you see in your local jeweler or on one of the countless TV shopping networks are most likely from Burma. As a result, US dollars are going to fund a brutal and despotic regime in Burma with each purchase. Representative Lantos has introduced legislation, the Block Burmese JADE (Junta’s Anti-Democratic Efforts) Act that will help put an end to this unconscionable trade. I ask all members of Congress to support passage of legislation that will cut off revenue from the sale of Burmese gemstones that helps fund the regime in Burma.

Thank you.