Promising democratic reforms are taking place in Burma, a small country in Southeast Asia long run by ruthless military generals. At Brilliant Earth, we’re following this news closely. Burma’s ruby trade, which supplies 90 percent of the world’s rubies, is one of the most shameful aspects of the entire global jewelry business. A democratic Burma could mean improved human rights conditions in Burma’s ruby mines, not to mention a better future for all of Burma’s people.
Famous for having a distinctive “pigeon blood” hue, Burmese rubies truly are coated in blood. Ruby mines in Burma, also known as Myanmar, are nightmarish places where adults and children work in slave-like conditions. The Burmese military controls the mines and literally forces people to mine for rubies. Profits flow directly into the pockets of Burma’s generals and the country’s elite, helping to prop up one of the most oppressive regimes on earth. The Burmese military dictatorship is guilty of crimes including rape, torture, and even the ethnic cleansing of minorities. The video below provides a glimpse into ruby mining in Burma.
So what gives us reason for hope? Elections held last year have brought a new president, U Thein Sein, to power. Observers considered the elections fraudulent and widely assumed that Thein Sein would do the bidding of Burma’s generals. But he has instead made a series of stunning moves: freeing political prisoners, allowing more press freedoms, opening a dialogue with political dissidents, and taking measures to protect the environment and reduce poverty. About 90 percent of the Burmese people live at or below the poverty line.
It is too early to say whether Burma is on a path to democracy—or whether, as a result of democratic reforms, human rights conditions in Burma’s ruby industry have improved. Certainly, the Burmese military will not be eager to give up control of the ruby mines. Despite U.S. and European sanctions on Burma, the ruby trade remains lucrative for the military. In July, a ruby and jade auction held by the Burmese government netted $1.5 billion.
Still, we’re encouraged. It is now somewhat easier to imagine an end to slave labor in Burma’s ruby mines and an improvement in human rights conditions throughout the country. Someday, we hope, there will even be an ethical supply of Burmese rubies helping to build a prosperous, democratic Burma.