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Boycott of Burma's 'Blood Rubies' Urged by Rights Advocates

Burma is preparing for its semi-annual gem auction, a long-running event the usually generates millions of dollars for the military-run government. This year, however, critics of the government are urging foreigners not to buy Burmese gems, which the critics say are funding the repression of the Burmese people. Kate Woodsome has more from VOA's Asia News Center in Hong Kong.

Burma's gem and jade sale - one of the country's biggest fundraisers - will take place this month in Rangoon.

The state-run Myanmar Gems Enterprise has not disclosed how many pieces will be on offer, but it expects at least 1,000 international traders to arrive for the 12-day event, which opens November 14.

Tezar, a representative of the organization in Rangoon, says he expects most of the buyers to come from Asia. Jade buyers tend to come from China and Hong Kong, he says.

"The gem merchants will probably, they will come from Thailand," he said.

A similar gem emporium held last March drew more than three thousand merchants and generated $185 million in sales. A third, special sale in July attracted about 4,000 buyers, but the earnings from nearly 5,000 lots at that event were not disclosed.

Gemstones - rubies, sapphires and emeralds -are Burma's third-largest export behind natural gas and timber. Rubies are the top selling stone: highly prized for their deep "pigeon blood" color, Burmese rubies account for 90 percent of the world's supply.

Critics call these "blood rubies." They say the color is symbolic of the blood shed by laborers who work in unsafe mines to recover them, and of the people killed over the last several decades by the military government's harsh policies.

Debbie Stothard of the Thai-based Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma draws a direct connection between the purchase of gems and oppression of the people.

"The rubies from Burma are blood rubies. They are red with the blood of young people," she said. "We cannot deny the fact that these gems are supporting the military regime and causing widespread human rights abuses."

The military has effectively ruled Burma since 1962. The current leadership is notorious for locking up and allegedly torturing political activists, depriving citizens of information, and driving Burma into economic despair while allegedly pocketing riches from the country's natural resources.

Tens of thousands of Buddhist monks and lay citizens took to the streets in September to protest such abuses. The rare show of defiance was crushed with deadly force. Security forces gunned down at least 10 people, but diplomats and rights advocates believe the death toll was probably in the hundreds.

The violence stirred an international outcry and debate about how best to push Burma's leaders toward reform. The United States strengthened sanctions against Burma, and the European Union banned the import of Burmese timber, metal and gems.

"Gems are one of the biggest income earners for this military regime," she said.

Stothard says most of the work is done by hand in mines that are not structurally sound or well ventilated. Despite the risks, she says, gem mining is one of the few options many Burmese have to earn money.

"In Burma, the military regime has wrecked the education system and has wrecked the economy so much that most young people either have to work in the mines or become monks or join the military or become migrant workers in another country," she noted.

Stothard is part of a small but growing movement that aims to create a boycott of Burma's gem industry.

Brian Leber, an American jeweler and the founder of the Jewelers' Burma Relief Project, stopped buying Burmese gems in 2002 for ethical reasons.

"We sell a luxury project and with it, there should not be such a thing as human rights abuses," he said. "That really detracts from any of the beauty that was inherent in the product."

Leber has been lobbying the U.S. government to strengthen its ban on Burma's so-called "blood rubies." Leber, along with the trade group Jewelers of America, and industry giant Tiffany and Company, have taken the lead in pushing for a more responsible gem trade.

They are lobbying the U.S. Congress to close a legal loophole that allows Burmese gems to be imported to the United States from a third country.

Speaking from the U.S. state of Illinois, Leber said he is optimistic about the process.

"I think Congress is taking a very serious look," he said. "Right now, there are two pieces of legislation pending in Congress that look likely they'll close the loophole and cut off funds to the regime."

Thailand is one of the biggest processing centers for Burmese rubies.

Pornchai Chuenchomlada is the president of the Thai Gem and Jewelry Traders Association in Bangkok. He says a U.S. boycott will not be effective because the high demand for rubies will just drive the stones to the black market.

Pornchai says it is not necessary to boycott the gems, because Burma's military government showed what he calls restraint during the September crackdown.

"We are a little bit happy because during the protest… the government didn't kill so many people, it killed some of them. You know, in this situation, we consider it a little bit violent," he said.

Leber in the United States dismisses that kind of attitude. He says gem buyers and sellers should consider Burma's overall political climate, and not just isolated incidents.

He says people should be as concerned about the ethics of the gem trade as they are about the diamonds that fund armed conflicts in Africa.

In 2003, a grassroots movement against "blood diamonds" won the support of 52 governments and the diamond industry. An internationally recognized certification system called the Kimberly Process was set up to establish import and export standards for rough diamonds.

Leber says the colored stone industry needs a similar process, for gems from any country in the world.

"Maybe not that you track every stone, but that you can establish certain stones that do meet this benchmark of not contributing to human rights abuses; that they are in fact benefiting local communities; that they are not causing environmental harm," he said.

Leber says he expects a certification process will eventually be established for colored stones. Until then, he says, consumers must decide whether they want their fashion accessories to fund human rights abuses.