YANGON (AFP) — Military-ruled Myanmar said Thursday it would auction off its world-renowned gems and jade next month, despite growing calls for a boycott on its precious stones -- a major money-spinner for the junta.
The November 7-19 auction will be the fifth such sale this year, the official New Light of Myanmar newspaper said.
Each auction attracts buyers from around the world who spend as much as 100 million dollars, making the gem sales a key source of revenue for the cash-strapped regime.
The announcement comes in the wake of the biggest anti-government rallies in nearly 20 years and a subsequent crackdown by security forces that left at least 13 dead, sparking international condemnation.
One of the poorest countries in the world, Myanmar supplies up to 90 percent of the world's rubies and has rich jade deposits that are highly prized in neighbouring China.
Despite sanctions on the regime, many stones from Myanmar are smuggled through neighbouring Thailand, where they are often cut and polished for eventual sale in the United States or Europe.
Iconic New York jeweler Tiffany's is among the few that refuses to sell stones from Myanmar, but the industry group Jewelers of America this week asked the US Congress to specifically ban all gemstones mined in Myanmar.
"Jewelers of America members believe it is their responsibility to support and respect the protection of international human rights within their sphere of influence and to make sure the sourcing of gemstones is not complicit in human rights abuses," said the group's president Matthew Runci.
Cartier also said this week that it had stopped buying gems which might have been mined in Myanmar until further notice.
For the past 700 years, the so-called "Valley of Rubies" in the Mogok region of northeast Myanmar has been mined for "pigeon blood" rubies -- considered the finest in the world -- as well as for sapphires and other rare gems.
A top-notch ruby can cost more per carat than a diamond, making it a must-have accessory for the newly rich in Asia, Russia and the Middle East.
Last year, an 8.62-carat Burmese ruby fetched a record price of 3.7 million dollars -- or 425,000 dollars per carat -- at a Christie's auction.
Imperial jade -- emerald-green in colour -- is another Myanmar treasure highly sought by the Chinese, the main customers for the country's gems.
The stones are mined at a huge human cost, with reports of horrific working conditions in Myanmar's ruby mines, which outsiders are forbidden to see.
Groups of Myanmar exiles want a boycott of the junta's gems auctions, claiming that mine owners rely on forced labour.
There are also reports of soaring AIDS infection rates among mine workers due to needle-sharing by heroin addicts and widespread prostitution, with drugs shipped in by local traffickers, according to the US group Campaign for Burma.
"Burma's gem industry is dominated by the military regime and its cronies," said Jeremy Woodrum, the group's director.
"No one with a conscience should buy a ruby because it is almost assuredly from Burma."
But Myanmar's auctions usually attract hundreds of buyers, especially from China and Thailand, although obtaining a visa has become more difficult since the crackdown.
Myanmar holds the auctions to try to stifle the thriving black market trade in gems, but many precious stones are still smuggled over to Thailand.
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