Blood Rubies Bankrolling Burma’s Military Junta

A gift of a ruby is meant to symbolize love, but if it comes from Burma the true price is paid in blood and oppression. ~Mark Farmaner, acting director of the Burma Campaign UK

Burma is awash in precious stones, including sapphires, jade, spinels, peridots, and legendary "pigeon's blood" rubies. It supplies 90 percent of the world's rubies, a major source of income for the junta, whose official gem-trading firm reported $300 million in earnings in 2007. But while the junta lives large, average Burmese face malnutrition and even starvation and many goods are produced with forced labor or child labor. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Gemstones are Burma’s third-biggest export after timber and natural gas and are worth about £145m a year, according to the regime’s own figures. Rubies from Burma are the most sought out gems in the world, and experts estimate that the military junta makes tens of millions of pounds annually from the lucrative trade.

According to Human Rights Watch:

Burma’s gem mines are ruled with an iron hand by military authorities and mining companies. Conditions are reported to be deplorable. Access to the mining tracks is strictly limited, especially to foreigners, but reports from nongovernmental groups suggest that land confiscation, extortion, forced labor, child labor, environmental pollution, and unsafe working conditions for miners are rampant. The absence of health care and HIV prevention information and services has accelerated the spread of HIV/AIDS and drug resistant malaria and tuberculosis in mining areas.

For years certain high-end jewelers have been accused of sponsoring the military junta in Burma by purchasing or trading “blood” rubies. In 2007, an undercover journalist from the Sunday Times discovered that many jewelers in London proudly display and sell the gem. For example, Asprey, Cartier, Leviev and Harrods are selling the gems in their central London stores, with some items costing as much as £500,000.

At the Leviev store in Old Bond Street, she was shown a £500,000 ring boasting a five-carat ruby set in diamonds. “Many collectors want Burmese [rubies],” said the sales assistant. “No one talks about diamonds any more, it’s all Burmese or colored diamonds.”

Just up the road at Asprey, a company established in 1781, the reporter was shown a one-carat ruby ring costing £10,000.

On sale at the Cartier store in New Bond Street was a 3.18-carat ruby ring valued at £120,000. A sales assistant later e-mailed details of a 10.04-carat stone costing £1.2m.

At Harrods Diamonds, a franchise based in the Knightsbridge department store, rubies from Burma were described as “the best” — and those which are “pigeon blood” in colour the most prized. -Times Online UK

Some countries, like the United States, have banned all imports from Burma. Furthermore, Tiffany & Co, an American owned company operating in the United Kingdom,  and Leber Jewelers have refused to stock and sell rubies since 2003.

In 2007, Prime Minister Gordon Brown pressed the European Union to introduce tougher sanctions against Burma which would prohibit sales of its gems in Britain, but the production and transportation of these precious stones creates complicated legal loopholes.

More than 90% of the world’s rubies come from Burma, but they are often cut and polished in third countries such as Thailand which means they are not classed as being of Burmese origin by customs officials.

Because of this loophole, it is difficult to estimate how much the Burmese ruby market is worth in Britain. Other imports from Burma, including teak wood and clothing, totaled £27m last year, according to customs statistics.

Jewelers in Britain procure their stock from international gemstone dealers who usually buy directly from government-run auctions in Rangoon or from trade fairs in third countries. -Times Online UK

In October 2007 the Jewelers of America, an industry association, issued an unprecedented call on Congress to fully ban Burmese gems and encouraged its 11,000 members to halt purchases of these gems until democratic reforms are underway. Other industry associations – one in Canada, a second association in the US, and an international jewelers confederation – also have supported similar moves.

Stores that sell the precious gem adamantly reject any claim that they are supporting or encouraging the Burmese military junta. Asprey claims it has a well-established relationship with their suppliers and demand the highest ethical standards for acquiring the gems. A spokesman for Harrods said that the rubies are “sourced by reputable companies adhering to internationally recognized legal and ethical guidelines.” Cartier and Bulgari voluntarily pledged to boycott Burmese rubies and explained that any rubies in their possession are a part of their vintage.

Brian Leber, an American jeweler who campaigns against the trade in Burmese gems, said: “The military regime is receiving a great deal of benefit from the sale of rubies because not only do they control the licensing of all mining operations, but they also have a majority share in every mine in the country and run the auctions.”

Source & Resources

Human Rights Watch
Mother Jones (Gallery)
Times Online
Dept of Labor List of Good Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor
CIA Factbook: Burma

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