Outside editorial: Repression rubies

Posted: Friday, November 16, 2007

Thanks to Hollywood and a tireless campaign by human-rights activists, many people have heard of "blood diamonds." An international outcry over the sale of diamonds to fund atrocities in African countries such as Sierra Leone led to a gemstone certification process that has helped quell the problem.

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Today, rubies are the new diamonds, and this time the atrocities are happening in Myanmar.

The military junta that brutally repressed a democracy movement led by Buddhist monks in late September gets most of its funding from natural gas, which is sold mostly to countries - such as Thailand, India and China - that are unwilling to participate in sanctions against Myanmar (also known as Burma). But gemstones are another of the country's most important exports, especially rubies and jade.

With much of the world searching for ways to pressure the Myanmar regime to stop killing and imprisoning its political opponents, Human Rights Watch has a sensible suggestion: Don't buy Burmese gems.

Myanmar's leaders are unlikely to make real reforms unless they feel a real financial sting. More than 90 percent of the world's rubies originate in Myanmar, where the junta controls most mines.

Most of the gems are bought by Asian merchants, but they are then cut, polished and sold to merchants around the world. Though the United States forbids direct gem imports from Myanmar, they can be sold here if they're processed in a third country.

There are three bills in Congress to close that loophole, and leaders in the House and Senate should expedite them. The European Union is also considering its own crackdown on gems from Myanmar.

Some retailers, including Tiffany & Co., Bulgari and Cartier, have already pledged to boycott Myanmar gemstones. Ethical holiday shoppers will buy their ruby trinkets from one of those dealers.

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