Thanks to the film Blood Diamond, audiences recently had a Hollywood glimpse of how gems called conflict stones can be used to fund oppressive military regimes. However, diamonds are not the only stones that are the currency of dictators and self declared generals. In fact, if you wanted to see conflict stones being bought and sold with your own eyes, all you had to do last weekend was go to the traveling Gem Faire at Santa Barbara’s Earl Warren Showgrounds, where some of the infamous rubies were displayed.
According to the United Nations, more than 90 percent of the world’s rubies come from Myanmar, or Burma as it is commonly known. Unlike the sale of diamonds, which is now regulated internationally, the sale of rubies is not monitored. Human rights groups concerned with actions of the junta - Burma’s notoriously oppressive military regime - are asking lawmakers to put more restrictions on rubies coming from Burma, as gems can be a lucrative way to provide isolated regimes a currency that is simple to smuggle, hard to trace, and easy to sell to a hungry consumer market. This does not come without considerable risk to independent smugglers, who are taxed by the Burmese government in addition to facing physical danger. A businesswoman in Burma who exports gems to the United States said, “I cannot be here and ask about the rubies. If you ask questions you disappear forever. This is a scary business right now.”
Rubies are often shipped from Burma to neighboring countries where they are set in jewelry, and then labeled as having been made in those places instead of Burma. Often, the labels indicate that the country of origin is Thailand or China. Once the rough gems are cut and processed, it is almost impossible to confirm a ruby’s true source, which leaves it up to a merchant to honestly disclose a gem’s country of origin. Enacted in 2003, the U.S. Burmese Freedom and Democracy Act forbids the importation of rubies directly from Burma, but allows Burmese rubies cut and polished in neighboring countries to be imported. Although it is still possible for vendors to get the stones - considered to be the finest in the world - some, including Tiffany & Co., do not import or sell rubies known to be from Burma.
Many of the vendors questioned at Santa Barbara’s Gem Faire - which was held from November 30 to December 2 at Earl Warren - admitted to having Burmese rubies on display, but did not know how they were mined, who the original sources were, or if some of their rubies from Thailand and other countries were actually from Burma. (In fact, many of the rubies from Thailand were illegally smuggled into Burma in the first place.) Several of the vendors stated that they don’t really keep track of where their rubies come from, and also that labor exploitation occurs in other countries where rubies and other gems are mined.
In June, the International Red Cross withdrew from Burma, claiming that its humanitarian efforts in the country had been “paralyzed” by the government, and declared Burma to have the worst case of human rights violations since Rwanda. Buddhist monks are usually not active in the political process there, but the protests staged by Buddhist monks in September were a clear indication that many Burmese agreed with that declaration. The Burmese junta responded violently to the protests, officially killing 14 civilians, one journalist, and imprisoning an estimated 10,000 protesters, prompting the U.S. to promise a new line of embargoes and sanctions, including a flat out ban on Burmese rubies. So far, that hasn’t happened.
Although no concrete numbers are available at this time, it is known that rubies are Burma’s second largest export after teak wood, and are commonly mined with forced labor in poor conditions. All of the ruby mines in Burma are either directly owned by a government company, or overseen by the army. According to Burmese refugees in Thailand, these army posts are the most sought after due to the kickbacks and bribes that come with the territory. Most of the mine workers, however, are poorly paid, if at all, and have no voice concerning safety and working conditions in the mines. Because of the difficulty in procuring a paid job in Burma, these workers suffer in silence.
John Goodman is currently in Thailand, and has been traveling back and forth across the Burmese border for the past two months. Additional reporting on this story was provided by Joe Soeller, an Independent intern.