Human Rights Group Hails Tiffany Refusal to Buy Myanmar-Mined Gems

March 10, 2005

Human Rights Group Hails Tiffany Refusal to Buy Myanmar-Mined Gems

The U.S. Campaign for Burma hailed a decision by Tiffany & Co. to continue to refuse purchases of gems mined in the Southeast Asian country of Myanmar (formerly known as Burma). Tiffany made its decision despite a recent U.S. Customs ruling declaring Burmese gems cut elsewhere are considered "substantially transformed" and don't fall under a 2003 U.S. ban on all products from Myanmar. The government's ban was put in place to protest human rights abuses in Myanmar.

"Tiffany deserves our praise and patronage for making this ethical decision," says Aung Din, co-founder of USCB, who spent four years as a political prisoner in Myanmar. Though Tiffany only mentioned a continued moratorium on ruby purchases in its initial statement, the retailer later confirmed to USCB that it will not buy any gems mined in Myanmar, including jadeite and spinel. "We are actively researching to find out if any other jewelers are importing [gems that originate in Myanmar]. We think their customers [would] be dismayed to hear about participation in Burma's 'blood gems' business."

Myanmar's democracy movement, led by Aung San Suu Kyi, has called on international businesses to shun the country until there is a transition to freedom and democracy there. Suu Kyi has been under house arrest for most of the past 15 years. On March 8, the United Nations announced it was giving an award to Suu Kyi to recognize her for her efforts to promote democracy in Myanmar. She is the world's only incarcerated Nobel Peace Prize recipient. Her National League for Democracy won free elections in 1990 but the Myanmar military refused to recognize the result and shut down NLD offices. Since 2000, more than 40 companies have ended ties to the country, including Kenneth Cole, Jones New York, Tommy Hilfiger and Federated Department Stores.

The U.S., which has identified Myanmar as an "outpost of tyranny," slammed the country's military government in a report this month for its "extremely poor human rights record" and accused the military of carrying out extrajudicial killings, rape and torture. The State Department's annual human rights report said the military party last year arrested at least 85 democracy supporters. Of those, 42 were released while 43 were tried and put into prison, the report said. Most of the 85 were from Suu Kyi's political party.

On March 4, a group of parliamentarians from six Southeast Asian nations, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippines, expressed opposition to Myanmar hosting the Association of South East Asian Nations Summit in 2006 unless Suu Kyi and other political activists were released from house arrest. These ASEAN members united for the first time to speak for political reforms in Myanmar. ''We agree that the situation in Myanmar is not acceptable. We have to see significant improvement, particularly with the ASEAN chair to be handed over to Myanmar in 2006,'' says Lim Kit Siang, leader of the opposition in Malaysia's parliament. Myanmar was admitted to ASEAN in 1997. The ASEAN parliamentarians also called on the Myanmar military to allow the opposition National League for Democracy to join the government. They said they would urge their governments to take a clear stance on the issue.

On March 10, top European Union diplomats say they also had frank discussions on Myanmar with officials from ASEAN. "We reiterated the need for the early lifting of all restrictions and we ask from the European side for the release of all political prisoners, including Aung San Suu Kyi," says Jean Asselborn, foreign minister of Luxembourg, which holds the European Union presidency. Many European officials have long advocated democratic reforms in Myanmar and the issue has caused friction between the European Union and ASEAN, which is the EU's second largest market and third largest trading partner in Asia. The EU is also the second largest investor in the 10 nations of ASEAN.

by Peggy Jo Donahue

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