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Burma Gem Boycott Raised

Haider Rizvi

NEW YORK - Rights activists in the West are urging buyers and sellers of precious gems to reject rubies and jades mined in Myanmar (formerly Burma).0116 08

The campaign to boycott Myanmar's prime products in the world's jewelry market is aimed at forcing the military junta in Yangon (formerly Rangoon) to end political repression.

"Sales of rubies and jade help bankroll Burma's repressive military," said Arvind Ganesan of Human Rights Watch (HRW), a New York-based advocacy group that tracks rights abuses across the world.

HRW's call for a boycott came as authorities in Yangon were about to open a 4-day gem auction. The auction, which began today, has been organized by the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Company Ltd.

Democracy activists say many of the senior military officials who hold key positions in the company are responsible for the continued abuse of human rights and political oppression in the country.

Last year in August and September, Myanmar's military regime was widely condemned by the international community for using violent means to suppress peaceful protests in Yangon and other cities.

Rights groups say forced labor, child labor, and human trafficking remain common in the country, which has been ruled by military dictators since 1962.

"Burma's generals are counting on gem sales to help pay for their abusive rule," said Ganesan in justifying the call for a boycott. "They deserve to be disappointed."

Ganesan and others are trying to convince consumers against buying anything from gem retailers who refuse to identify the country of origin of the jewels in writing.

In a statement, HRW said retailers should require their suppliers to identify the country of origin on any invoices and to guarantee that gemstones were not mined in Myanmar.

Jewelers see Myanmar's ruby as one of the finest in the world. Currently, its share in the total volume of trade in the international market is reported to be around 90 percent. The country also dominates the world market in the export of jade.


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Official figures indicate Myanmar earned nearly $300 million last year from sales of its gem stone products. Activists say they wonder if that amount would ever be spent to improve the living standards for miners.

"Gem mines are ruled with an iron hand by military authorities and mining companies," according to HRW, which describes the working conditions at Myanmar's ruby and jade mines as "deplorable."

In a statement, the rights group accused the army of abusing gem stone miners, many of whom are suffering from from HIV/AIDS and other deadly diseases due to poor working conditions. Its research shows many of those employed at the mines are children.

Analysts say the boycott campaign may not cause an immediate change in the political behavior of the military generals, but it will certainly force them to rethink how long they can afford to defy international calls for a just and democratic rule.

In addition to the activists' call for a boycott, the military regime in Myanmar is already facing considerable trade restrictions from governments in charge of some of the world's leading economies.

Recently, the European Union (EU) declared it was not going to buy certain products from Myanmar, including many types of gems. The United States has already taken similar steps.

HRW says many jewelers in the Western market have responded positively to its call. World famous brand names, including Tiffany & Co. and Leber Jewelers, are already boycotting gems from Myanmar.

In October, the Jewelers of America, an industry association, also took a similar position by calling on its 11,000 members to stop buying Myanmar gems as a gesture of protest against the country's military rule.

HRW researchers anticipate a downward spiral in jade and ruby prices in the West as a result of the boycott by retailers and buyers. However, they have no doubt that prices will remain stable in China, where demand for jade is particularly high.

Last October, China refused to go along with the Western powers when they sought UN Security Council sanctions against Myanmar.

Despite calls for an international boycott, Myanmar's gems are expected be widely used in jewelry and other retail items sold to tourists during the upcoming Beijing Olympics.

Copyright © 2008

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