Precarious Gems

by Marin Cogan | December 17, 2007

This past fall, the world watched in horror as brutal military rulers reasserted their control of Burma by chasing protesting monks from the streets of the country's capital. And the junta had help from a powerful ally: the American consumer. Burma produces more than 90 percent of the world's ruby and jade. According to Human Rights Watch, the state-controlled Myanmar Gems Enterprise pocketed nearly $300 million from the gem trade last year. That represents a 45 percent increase in profits from the previous year. And it makes gems the government's third-largest revenue source--one of the chief means by which Burma's junta arms the soldiers it deploys against monks, minority ethnic groups, and just about anyone who questions its ruthless rule.

If this situation--a group of sadists relying on the sale of valuable gems to fund their violence--sounds familiar, it should. A year ago, the film Blood Diamond, directed by Edward Zwick (a former TNR intern), showed audiences how diamond buyers inadvertently funded a brutal rebel group in Sierra Leone during the 1990s. But there is one key difference between African diamonds and Burmese gems: By the time Blood Diamond came out, the diamond industry had already been shamed into accepting a system of regulations that make it difficult for conflict diamonds--diamonds whose sale bankrolls violence--to land on the shelves of American jewelry stores, and around the necks of unsuspecting buyers. By contrast, to this day, ruby and jade from Burmese mines--which NGOs have described as rife with unsafe working conditions and child labor--continue to pour into the United States.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. A round of sanctions passed in 2003 banned Burmese imports, including ruby and jade. But there was a catch: Not long after the sanctions became law, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a ruling declaring any gem that passed through a third country to be "substantially transformed" and therefore no longer of Burmese origin. Most gems from Burma were already being exported uncut to countries like India, Thailand, or China for polishing and mounting. So the decision from Customs effectively rendered the ban on Burmese gems moot.

Fortunately, the loophole may be about to close. Last week, the House of Representatives passed a bill sponsored by California Congressman Tom Lantos that would ban the import of gems originating in Burma--whether or not they have passed through another country. (The EU, which along with the United States and Japan, purchases about 85 percent of Burma's rubies, has already passed similar sanctions.) What's more, even before the bill had passed, a number of large jewelry retailers--such as Sterling, Tiffany's, and Cartier--had voluntarily agreed to stop purchasing Burmese gems.

Still, the issue is far from resolved. The bill has yet to pass the Senate and go to President Bush's desk. As a result, in the midst of the holiday season, Burmese ruby and jade continue to enter the United States. While a group called Jewelers of America--representing 11,000 jewelry retailers--has called on its members to ban Burmese gems, many stores continue to stock them. The group's director of public affairs, Peggy Jo Donahue, explains that it has instructed members, "You don't want to buy gemstones that are mined in Burma." Still, she adds, "We don't have a mandate to require those things." If the Lantos bill becomes law, of course, those stores will no longer have a choice. But for now, Donahue has one suggestion for customers who want to be sure they're not buying Burmese ruby and jade: "Ask if their jeweler has a policy." Moreover, even if the loophole is eventually closed, other steps will still be needed. For instance, the United States should pressure countries like Thailand and China (the largest importer of Burmese jade, which has reportedly been buying it in increased amounts for products commemorating the 2008 Olympics) to stop buying the stones.

In the months since they ordered their soldiers to chase monks from the streets, Burma's rulers have gotten exactly what they wanted. The world's attention has mostly moved elsewhere, and the junta has gone back to doing what it does best: administering a closed, Orwellian society with ruthless precision. But this situation need not go on forever. Deprived of the ability to sell their gems, the men who run Burma would be in trouble--and their long-suffering people would be one step closer to freedom. Someday, perhaps Edward Zwick will direct a movie showing how the international appetite for ruby and jade helped to prolong the rule of one of the world's most brutal regimes, long past the point when it might otherwise have begun to collapse. Then again, it would be nice if he didn't have to.

 Marin Cogan is an editorial web intern at The New Republic.

 

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