Gem industry feeds Myanmar military

Call for ban on purchase of gemstones.

Myanmar gems

Myanmar has vast deposits of gems, but the industry is shrouded in secrecy

An international corruption watchdog is calling for a complete ban on the purchase of gemstones from Myanmar.

Human Rights Watch says the gem industry is Myanmar’s third largest earner, but that revenue helps finance military abuses across the country.

Many buy ruby, a gemstone, in the belief that it will bring them good luck.

But in reality, rubies and other precious stones have brought nothing but misery to the vast majority of the country.

Tight controls

Gems are the third largest revenue earner for the military government, which tightly controls the entire industry. And it is cash that is crucial for funding the government.

Arvind Ganesane of Human Rights Watch told Al Jazeera: “[Gems] provide hundreds of millions of dollars to commit abuses, repress its own people and resist international pressure to change, to allow opposition parties to function and allow democratically elected leaders.”

About 90 per cent of the world’s rubies can be traced back to Myanmar.

Myanmar has vast deposits of gems. Like the military cabal that has been in power for more than four decades, the gemstone industry is shrouded in secrecy.

Most gems are mined in high-security areas in northern Myanmar. Miners work with no protection and in conditions where HIV and malaria are said to be widespread.

The US banned gem imports from Myanmar in 2003. It has recently tightened up the law in a bid to pressure the Myanmar government into making political changes.

The EU also imposed sanctions after the government’s military crackdown three months ago.

But the embargos has been hard to enforce and has barely had any effect.

Stone confusion

Most rubies are treated in Thailand and can easily be confused with stones from Africa once they are cut and polished.

And state gem auctions, which pull in thousands of international buyers each year, are on the increase.

“I don’t think the Burmese are worried about the American market alone,” says PJ Joseph of the Asian Institute of Gemological Studies.

“As long as you have the Chinese, southeast Asian and the Indian market, there will always be demand for Burma’s stones.”

A typical gem craftsman in Myanmar earns a dollar for each piece he makes. Some observers fear that if the embargo works at all, it will be the craftsmen who suffer the most.

But others argue it would be hard for conditions to get much worse for one of the poorest and most oppressed countries in Asia.

Source: Al Jazeera