Professional Jeweler Archive:

May 2005

Letter


Burma: Reaching the End of 'Business as Usual'


Our industry is at a crossroads. The subject of human rights and its relationship to the jewelry industry’s responsibility to Burma is fast becoming a major issue.

As most of you already know, Burma is the source for some of the finest gemological treasures. It is also home to one of the most oppressive and brutal regimes on the planet which, along with bearing responsibility for countless well-documented human rights abuses, continues to hold the duly elected leader, Nobel Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest.

What brings this issue especially close to home is that this totalitarian regime also maintains a majority share of the gemstone mines in Burma [Editor’s Note: the ruling party has called the country Myanmar since 1989]. In addition, this illegal government runs the gem auctions in Rangoon, the capital. Simply put, the Burmese military establishment has unprecedented control over, and receives vast benefit from, the gem trade in which we all participate.

A broad range of companies, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Wal-Mart, have voluntarily divested themselves of dealings with this troubled land and its brutal government. In the words of Levi Strauss & Co., “It is not possible to do business in (Burma) without directly supporting the military government and its pervasive violations of human rights.”

Sadly, our industry has been the exception to this corporate concern for human rights in Burma. Since the inception of formalized U.S. government sanctions in 2003, there has been on-going smuggling of gemstones from Burma into the U.S., intense lobbying on the part of a few individuals and companies to grant our industry a special exemption to the trade restrictions and a recent trade association-sponsored promotional tour to Burma. (It is worth noting that human rights groups as well as Aung San Suu Kyi have called for a travel boycott in addition to the call for sanctions because the military regime benefits greatly from travel to Burma.)

This February, Tiffany & Co. formally announced it had resumed buying Burmese-origin gemstones in light of a recent ruling by U.S. Customs & Border Protection. This action proved to be the impetus for a coalition of human rights groups – including the U.S. Campaign for Burma, Global Exchange and Human Rights Watch – to begin a campaign specifically focusing on our industry’s continued support of this pariah regime.

Two weeks after the Tiffany announcement, CEO Michael Kowalski issued a statement reversing this decision and pledging not to purchase Burmese-origin gemstones, specifically because of the deplorable human rights situation in that country. I applaud Mr. Kowalski’s decision and encourage all other companies in our industry, retail and wholesale, to make a similar pledge.

As members of the gem and jewelry trade, we all have a decision to make. In the past, our industry stumbled with its handling of the conflict diamond issue. But we need not make the same mistake again. We must focus on what is ethical and make our decisions accordingly instead of maintaining the myopic view that business with Burma can be justified. In the end, I think we will all find the ethical route proves to be the best business decision we can make.

Consumer awareness of this issue is beginning to grow, and we will be judged by our actions. “Business as usual” with Burma will no longer stand as a viable option. We must all decide whether we are willing to change on our own or to wait until this change is forced upon us, where we will suffer the effects of being labeled one of the last supporters of a wretched regime.

Brian Leber, President
Leber Jeweler
Western Springs, IL

Founder
Jewelers’ Burma Relief Project

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