Saturday, November 17, 2007
BURMA'S BLOOD RED RUBIES
he problem of Africa's "blood diamond" trade fueling the continent's civil wars (and the resultant atrocities committed against civilian populations) has become better known in recent years, and the highly profitable world diamond markets have been obliged to implement systems to monitor the origins of its diamonds.
In Burma, the ruling generals keep themselves rolling in power and cash largely through the sale of precious rare commodities, such as the world's last remaining teak forests (clearcut and sent to China, most of it off the books), and the country's deposits of jade, rubies and other gemstones.
In the case of Burma's highly prized "blood rubies," the stones have an appropriate hue. They're the colour of the blood that ran in Rangoon's streets less than two months ago, and of the robes of the monks from whom much of it spilled.
The regime's "Gems Emporium" opened in Rangoon on Wednesday -- under a cloud of boycott from world markets.
Some of the world's largest and best-recognized jewelers, including Cartier and Tiffany, have told their suppliers they will no longer buy gems of Burmese origin.That would be referring to Thailand, mainly. Most Burmese gemstones end up here (legally or illegally) to be cut, polished and set.
A bill in the U.S. Congress backed by Jewelers of America, an industry association, seeks to bar the import of Burmese gems that are polished or cut in a third country before being shipped to the United States.
Adisak Thawornviriyanan, director of the Gems and Jewelry Traders Association of Chataburi, a province east of Bangkok that is a major center for cutting and polishing Burmese gems, has taken part in auctions for the past four years. But he decided not to attend this Gems Emporium, the first since the government's crackdown on demonstrators in September.Merchants from China and Thailand dominate among the potential buyers at this month's "Emporium," but even the most unprincipled jewel trader must be concerned about falling demand, and falling prices. They'll be looking for deep discounts in the current market environment. Even the stones themselves seem to be conspiring against them.
"We will wait and see if we can sell our old stock, but I wouldn't dare buy more," Adisak said. "We don't know how strong the U.S. ban will be."
Unlike diamonds, rubies often have a chemical signature that allows gemologists to trace their origin, sometimes with enough precision to determine the mine where they were excavated, experts say.How cool is that? A ruby can actually tell you where it comes from. Gem sales brought the Burmese regime nearly $300 million last year, the third highest commodity after fossil fuels and timber. They have also provided unsavoury characters an easy way to move their wealth.
Cartier, which announced its in-house ban on Burmese gems last month, says it will conduct random checks on stones like rubies.
"While this is not an exact science, especially for smaller stones, laboratories are able to provide feedback on the credibility of the supplier's claim," Katharina Feller Baignères, a spokeswoman for Cartier, said by e-mail in response to questions.
Some suppliers have told the company they cannot guarantee the provenance of their stones and have stopped submitting any type of gemstones that can be found in Myanmar, Baignères said.
[Sean Turnell, an expert on the Burmese economy with Macquarie University in Sydney] also said the boycotts could crimp the ability of generals and Burmese business executives to move their assets out of the country.US First Lady Laura Bush is on the case.
In the absence of a stable currency and with restrictions on holding dollars inside Myanmar, "gems perform a very important function in moving personal assets around the deck," Turnell said.
US First Lady Laura Bush on Friday called for a global boycott of jewels from Myanmar, specifically urging companies to shun a gem show in Yangon and consumers around the world to look elsewhere.That's because it's the country's legitimate name -- her citizens had no say in the generals' unilateral renaming frenzy.
"Every Burmese stone bought, cut, polished, and sold sustains an illegitimate, repressive regime," she said in a statement released by the White House. Washington refers to the country as "Burma."
"These funds prop up the regime, allowing it to continue to harass, arrest, and sentence peaceful activists who seek freedom of speech, worship, and assembly," the US first lady said.The junta's gem auctions used to be held twice a year, but in their need for more foreign cash, the current sale is the fifth this year. Four such auctions were held in 2006.
"Those who support freedom and justice for the Burmese people should not help fill the regime's coffers at this gem show. I applaud the Jewelers of America and member companies such as Tiffany and Cartier for taking a stand against the importation of Burmese gems," she said.
"I urge others in the industry, both in the US and worldwide, to join in this important effort and refuse to have the trade in Burmese gems prop up the Burmese regime," she said.
Canada's Conservative government announced the world's strongest sanctions against the Burmese military regime this week, and yesterday the US Senate resolved unanimously to urge the upcoming meeting of the Association of South East Asian Nations to consider suspending Burma's membership.
The resolution urged the grouping "to review Burma's membership in ASEAN and to consider appropriate disciplinary measures, including suspension, until such time as the Government of Burma has demonstrated an improved respect for and commitment to human rights."On the sidelines of some preparatory meetings this week in Singapore for the ASEAN summit, one of the junta leaders boasted that arrests will continue.
"We control the situation," he said of the ruling junta. "We take in some people for questioning, but most are released."When "some people" are detained in relation to the democracy protests, they are getting more than questions. Major-General Aye Myint was meeting his counterparts at the Asean Defence Ministers Meeting. More embarrassment for ASEAN is sure to follow.