By Emily Claire Goldman and Simon Billenness
On December 6th, Cartier made the dramatic announcement that it would stop its purchase of gems from Burma (Myanmar). This sudden shift was due to consumer pressure on Cartier to stop selling “genocide gems.” This demonstrates the growing power of “citizens sanctions” on the Burmese army’s business interests.
Cartier faced mounting pressure from more than 70,000 consumers organized by International Campaign for the Rohingya and SumOfUs, some of whom posted their opposition on Cartier’s Facebook page to its sale of “genocide gems.” In response, Cartier announced on its Facebook page that, “as part of [its] continuous review process to ensure ethical sourcing, Cartier has decided to stop purchasing gemstones from Myanmar, which will become fully effective as of December 8.”
The Sunday Times (UK) quickly picked up on the story with its article “Taint of Burma’s Genocide Gems.”
The Case For Sanctions on Burma’s Army
Since August, Burmese military forces have carried out a textbook example of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya. This systematic, targeted and deliberate campaign of violence against civilians – what human rights experts have called crimes against humanity – has sparked international condemnation and raised concerns that the Burmese military is marching on the path to genocide.
In the past year alone, Burma’s army has forced more than 626,000 people from their homes in attacks reminiscent of those in Bosnia and Rwanda in the early 1990s. Despite Burmese government officials’ efforts to restrict UN investigators’ and journalists’ access to affected areas, reports have consistently documented grave human rights abuses committed by Burmese military forces, including “deliberately burning people to death inside their homes; murders of children and adults; indiscriminate shooting of fleeing civilians; widespread rapes of women and girls; and the burning and destruction of houses, schools, markets and mosques.”
Burma’s incomplete transition to democracy has been marked by a power-sharing agreement between the civilian government – led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) – and the military. Under this agreement, the NLD government operates under the military-written constitution that allows the army to retain significant control over the country’s political and economic affairs. The military avoids civilian oversight and judicial scrutiny, allowing it to avoid accountability for grave human rights abuses. This is evident with the recent self-exonerating report released by the military, claiming that an independent investigation into allegations of grave human rights abuses against the Rohingya in Rakhine State cleared them of any wrongdoing in the atrocities.
Burma’s Military-Commercial Complex
Burma’s military has built up extensive commercial interests in mining and extraction over fifty years of military rule.
Military-owned companies include Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC), a secretive conglomerate owned by the defense ministry, and Myanmar Economic Holdings Limited (MEHL), both of which are heavily involved in the country’s gemstone sector. Myanmar Gems Enterprise (MGE), a state-owned enterprise run by former military men, is responsible for gemstone production through its control of permits, licensing, collection of royalties, and joint venture partnerships.
Yeshua Moser-Puangsuwan of Transparency International told the Financial Times in February, 2017, that the military’s modus operandi has always been to “insert themselves in various parts of the economy and use this to enrich their shareholders,” the Burmese army.
The military projects MEC and MEHL as potential partners for foreign multinationals seeking to invest in Burma. Hla Myo, a former army major and a general manager at MEHL, told the Financial Times that the company is “very passionate” about adding U.S. and European companies to MEHL’s roster of joint ventures with Asian corporate partners.
The Financial Times reported that MEHL’s top ten directors all hold military ranks. The board is overseen by seven of the Burma’s top military officers, headed by the commander-in-chief, Min Aung Hlaing.
Burma’s Mogok Valley is renowned for producing some of the highest quality rubies and sapphires, with the country supplying the majority of the world’s rubies and jadeite. According to Global Witness, MEHL’s has a prominent position in the jade trade, worth as much as $31 billion to Burma in 2014. At the 2014 Myanmar gems emporium, the official government auction, MEHL’s Myanmar Imperial Jade subsidiary recorded record sales figures of almost $150 million.
Ending the “Genocide Gems” Trade
The United States enacted a ban of imports of gems mined in Myanmar in 2003. However, few high-end jewelry retailers opted to boycott Burmese gems at that point in time. Instead, the companies chose to take advantage of a loophole in the legislation that allowed for the importation of Burmese gems that were cut and polished in another country.
Tiffany & Co. announced in 2003 that it would no longer purchase Burmese gems regardless of where the stones were cut or polished, thereby refusing to profit off of human rights abuses. By contrast, its competitors, such as Cartier, continued to buy Burmese gems until international outrage pressured it to adopt similar policies in 2007.
When the US lifted sanctions on Burmese gems in 2016, Tiffany & Co. maintained its commitment to responsible gemstone sourcing. Cartier, like many other high-end jewelry retailers, quietly ended their boycott of Burmese gems when the opportunity to maximize profits presented itself once again.
The Rise of “Citizens Sanctions” on Burma’s Military
Governments are considering sanctions against Burma army in the wake of its most recent campaign of violence against the Rohinyga. Americans can urge their Members of the U.S. Congress to support and co-sponsor House (H.R. 4223) and Senate (S.2023), bills that would reinstate the ban of imports into the U.S. of Burmese gems.
But we don’t have to depend on lobbying our Members of Congress. We can put direct consumer pressure on the jewelry retailers that are fueling the military’s atrocities against the Rohingya and other ethnic minorities in Burma, including the Karen, Shan, and Kachin.
Cartier’s decision to stop buying Burmese gems demonstrates how ordinary people can directly sanction Burma’s army. Let’s make it crystal clear to the jewelry industry that there’s no market for genocide gems.