Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach

Burmese Rubies: A Pretty Gem with a Dirty Secret

October 8, 2013

  Tongxin (Lucy) Lu, CCAO Peace and Conflict Resolution Intern

Rubies are the most expensive gems per carat on earth, and Burma (now known as Myanmar) is blessed with an abundance of them. The valley of Mogok, located some 200 kilometers northeast of the city of Mandalay in Burma, has been yielding the world’s most beautiful gems for more than a thousand years. But as pretty as the gems are, the ruby mining business is dangerous and dirty.

The mining of rubies, as well as jade, not only helps fund the Burmese military junta, but also exacerbates human rights violation such as child labor. The Burmese military, which owns the vast majority of the ruby mines, forces very young children to work brutal days in the mines. The children are used to reach the deepest, smallest, and most dangerous pits.

Moreover, according to a report from the International Women and Mining Conference, a cash-based economy, fueled by the rubies industry, has created immense pressure on women and young girls from desperately poor families to enter into the commercial sex industry, which serves the overwhelmingly male and transient labor force. The United States first banned the import of rubies and jade from Burma in 2003 and President Obama has renewed the ban in August, 2013.

Despite the embargo, the trade in Burmese rubies is still going strong in Asian countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, China and India. In fact, the ruby trade is so lucrative, rubies and jade together are Burma’s third largest export.

The Church’s social teaching calls on Catholics to uphold the life and dignity of every human person, to be in solidarity with our brothers and sisters worldwide, and to care for God’s creation. In his Easter homily, Pope Francis called us to be guardians of creation. He also deplored a world divided by greed looking for easy gain, including in extractive industries.

The Columban missionary society has had a long history with the Burmese people. In 1949, the Holy See assigned a new mission territory in northern Burma. Since then, the Columban Missionary Society has been entrusted with the task of helping the most vulnerable in Burma.

As the ruby mining industry is booming, we need to be more aware about the living, day to day impact of the ruby industry for the Burmese people and above all the poorest people, who have the least capacity to fight for their rights. As people of faith, we stand in solidarity with the Burmese people and work for an end of the ruby industry in Burma.