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Who's buying Burma's gems?

Laura Bush's campaign for a global boycott is being undone by China's appetite for Olympic souvenirs made of Burmese jade.

By Danna HarmanCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 11, 2008

Tainted jade? A Burmese worker washes jade prior to an auction. The precious stone now accounts for 10 percent of export earnings.

Khin Maung/Win/AFp/Getty Images

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Rangoon, Burma

It's the last hour of the last day of the gems auction in Rangoon, and tired buyers are fanning themselves with worn auction catalogs, and making their final bids.

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Over the past five days, jade, rubies, sapphires, and close to $150 million have passed hands here, according to the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings Ltd., the consortium that dominates Burma's gemstone trade and is owned by the defense ministry and a clutch of military officers.

Who's buying? China, India, Singapore, and Thailand are scooping up Burma's stones. US first lady Laura Bush's efforts at a global boycott of Burma's gems seem to have done little to reduce China's appetite for Burmese jade to make trinkets and souvenirs to sell at the Summer Olympics.

At this recent auction, 281 foreigners attended, leaving behind much-needed foreign currency and generally turning the auction into a resounding success, according to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

Mrs. Bush – and human rights campaigners – would not be pleased.

The first lady has taken on the military regime in Burma (Myanmar), urging jewelers not to buy gems from a country where the undemocratic rulers and their cronies amass fortunes selling off the country's stones, as well as many of the county's other natural resources – such as minerals, timber, gold, oil, and gas – but keep Burma's citizens in abject poverty.

She has urged UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon to act more forcibly on Burma and stood beside President Bush on several occasions recently as he announced the growing list of US sanctions on the country. And, on International Human Right's Day this past December, Mrs. Bush added her voice to those seeking a global boycott on gems from Burma.

"Consumers throughout the world should consider the implications of their purchase of Burmese gems," she said in a statement from the White House. "Every Burmese stone bought, cut, polished, and sold sustains an illegitimate, repressive regime."

According to Human Right's Watch (HRW), Burma's junta owns a majority stake in each of the country's mines – many of them sitting on land confiscated from local communities – sanctioning both unsafe working conditions and forced and child labor. The European Union passed rules in November banning imports of Burmese rubies and jade, and Canada and the US Senate followed suit in December.

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