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US Jewelers Urge Congress to Ban Burmese Gems, and Gore Politics

  • Kate Woodsome
  • Jim Malone

The Jewelers of America sent a letter to U.S. congressional leaders this week asking them to close a legal loophole that allows Burmese gems into the country, despite sanctions against the military-ruled government.

The United States banned direct imports from Burma in 2003. But a year later, U.S. Customs and Border Protection issued a ruling allowing gems mined in Burma to be transported to the U.S. as long as they are cut or polished in another country. Basil Fernando of the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong says if the law is amended and enforced, it could slow the flow of money to Burma's military leaders.

"Money from the trade goes to the generals and their supporters, various companies, black marketers and various types of these groups. It doesn't go to the people in any way, even in a limited way. Not even by way of any decent wage."

Jewelers of America is also calling on its 11,000 member retailers, including giants Cartier and Tiffany, to ensure gemstones are properly sourced. It took the initiative after the Burmese military killed several people and arrested thousands who joined pro-democracy demonstrations in Rangoon and other Burmese cities last month.

Industry experts say it would be difficult to enforce an all-out ban on Burmese gems because it is hard to determine the stones' origin. Stella Lee of the Gemological Institute of America in Hong Kong says a gem must be analyzed in a laboratory to know its origin. But she says even then, it can be hard to tell.

"Sometimes, if they do have, like, telltale inclusion or telltale properties, then we can tell is it (from) Burma. But then if they doesn't have any of these kinds of properties, we cannot really tell about the origin of rubies - the country of origin."

Burma has a wealth of jadeite and sapphires, but it is world-renowned for its rubies. Lee says most high quality rubies sold on the international market are from Burma.

"The reason why people like Burmese rubies is they give you a more preferable color in the trade. Very, very deep, medium dark, pure red ruby."

Industry experts say the majority of Burmese rubies come through neighboring Thailand, both legally and by smuggling. There, in a border town called Chanthaburi, companies heat-treat the rubies to improve their color and clarity. The gems are then cut and polished for sale to the U.S. and elsewhere.

Experts say, although rubies also are treated in India, Thailand's processing is unrivaled. It is the world's number one ruby exporter. Industry insiders say a U.S. ban on Burmese gems likely would not stop the trade, because dealers are more interested in making money than in obeying the law.

Former Vice President Al Gore's new status as a Nobel Peace Prize winner is encouraging some of his political supporters in the United States to urge him to run for president next year. But most political experts doubt Gore will make a run for the White House in 2008.

Gore told a California news conference he is honored to share the Nobel award with the United Nations panel on climate change.

"I will accept this award on behalf of all of those who have been working so long and so hard to try to get the message out about this planetary emergency."

Gore took no questions at the news conference, leaving open how his newfound status as a Nobel Peace Prize winner might affect his future political plans. Gore supporters wasted little time in seizing on his Nobel recognition in their continuing bid to urge him to run for president next year. Monica Friedlander is founder of the group DraftGore-dot-com, which has run ads and gathered signatures in a bid to press the former vice president to make a second run for the White House in 2008.

"There is just such a tidal wave of support and excitement about him as the potential candidate. It is very, very difficult for him to resist, or at least so I hope."

Gore narrowly lost the 2000 presidential election to George W. Bush. University of Virginia political analyst Larry Sabato says there is little doubt that Gore's Nobel prize will now inspire his supporters to push even harder for him to enter the presidential race.

"This will encourage the Gore drafters. They have been dying to get Gore into the race. They are very dissatisfied with the prospect of Hillary Clinton being the nominee. This may be their last stand."

Gore has said repeatedly he is not planning a run for president next year, though when pressed he refuses to rule out the possibility.

"Well, you know, I am not pondering it, I am not focused on that. I am focused on how to solve the climate crisis."

Among those who doubt Gore will join the presidential race is longtime political observer Tom DeFrank of the New York Daily News, a guest on this week's Issues in the News program on VOA.

"He keeps saying he has no plans, and usually the 'no plans' language is designed to keep your options open. But I suspect he is probably not going to run. I think he is probably making too much money, getting too much adulation to put himself through the meat grinder again."

If Gore were to change his mind and enter the race for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination, most analysts predict it would be an uphill fight. Recent polls place Gore in third place with about ten percent support, well behind Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and roughly tied with John Edwards.

Expert Larry Sabato says a decision to run would put Gore at a clear disadvantage compared to those Democratic contenders who have been running and raising money for months.

"It is very hard to run for president from a standing stop, and he would have to move to sprinter's position immediately to have any chance of even making all the deadlines to file for the various primaries."

The Nobel Peace Prize is the latest honor for Gore in a year that began with Hollywood honoring his documentary on climate change. The documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," helped make global warming a top environmental issue in the U.S. and around the world. Gore accepted the Academy Award for Best Documentary.

"We need to solve the climate crisis. It is not a political issue. It is a moral issue."

Gore's views on climate change still have plenty of critics, especially congressional Republicans like Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma.

"Thousands of meteorologists, climatologists and scientists disagree with you. Are they all wrong and you are all right?"

Gore told reporters Friday he hopes the recognition of his work will elevate global consciousness about the challenges of global warming. Gore described the issue as a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity.