Importing products from Burma inevitably contributes to the oppression of the people of Burma. Because the junta's use of forced labour is widespread throughout the country, it is extremely difficult to avoid doing business that does not benefit from or support Burma's regime and its human rights abuses. (See corporate complicity) Through joint-venture operations these exports directly implicate foreign industries and consumers in a state-run system that, spends about 40% of its budget on weapons purchases and less than 2% on health care for its own citizens. Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD), which won 82% of the vote in the 1990 elections, has been urging foreign companies to refrain from doing business in their country because of the detrimental effects it has on the people and the environment.
"If businessmen do not care that our workers are exposed to exploitation, they should at least be concerned that a dissatisfied labour force will eventually mean social unrest and economic instability. To observe businessmen who come to Burma with the intention of enriching themselves is somewhat like watching passers-by in an orchard roughly stripping off blossoms for their fragile beauty, blind to the ugliness of the despoiled branches," warned Aung San Suu Kyi in 1996.
Despite that Canada imposed a voluntary sanctions policy, Selective Economic Measures a gainst Burma in August 1997, over the past few years, imports from Burma have increased by over 50%. Of the total number of imports from Burma in 1996, the total value was Cdn $14,586,985, (which included $5,684,185 on garments, $5,807,319, on prawns/shrimp and $3,095,481 on other products). In 1998, the total value rose to Cdn $22,944,546, (of which $11,816,005 was spent on frozen shrimp, $9,883,656 on garments, and $1,244,885 on other products).
Garment importers and consumers inevitably help the Burmese junta to buy weaponry. The military's Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings (UMEH) is the state-controlled enterprise that foreign companies are steered towards if they want to take advantage of joint venture opportunities in Burma, which includes garment industry investments and marketing deals managed out of Burma. The UMEH is 40% owned by the arms procurement branch of the Ministry of Defense. Foreign garment importers (and other foreign investors) are financing the UMEH, the sole shipping agent for Sea Containers Myanmar Limited, which controls a large share of cargo traffic on route between Rangoon and Singapore, through which most exports out of Burma, including clothing, are then transhipped to North America.
Reitmans and Saans are two Canadian companies that are known to have imported clothing from Burma over the past couple of years.
In addition to the above importers, a further 187 metric tons of garments, whose retail destination are not indicated in the PIERS data base, entered the Port of Vancouver between July 1998 and July 1999. Unfortunately, the data base only tracks the freight forwarding companies who first bring in the merchandise but then these companies forward it on to retailers across Canada, which must be tracked by other means. The names of some of these freight forwarding companies are: Canadian Retails Shipper Association, Western Assembly, and Carson Freight Service.
CFOB published a report about Burma's garment industry in 1996 called Dirty Clothes:Dirty System. Although some of the report's data and figures are out of date, the facts are still very relevant. Unfortunately, "How Burma's Military Dictatorship Uses Profits from the Garment Industry to Bankroll Oppression" has not changed since the release of the report.
Dirty Clothes: Dirty System is a comprehensive analysis which articulates the problem, but also provides an action plan for change. The report notes the demand for more ethical business practices among some Western consumers. "Why should SLORC not be faced with similar potential boycotts until it begins to treat its own citizens with respect?" The report argues that the current quota system in the garment industry is no excuse for doing business with regimes such as the SLORC. "Cheap clothes and ever-higher profits are the issue." The practice of false labeling increases this growth by an unknown amount. At the time of the reports publication, Burmese garment workers earned between $20-25 a month, or half the going rate in Vietnam and one-tenth the average wage in Thailand.
For a copy of the report,
Frozen prawns and shrimp are currently Canada's biggest imports from Burma. Tai Foong International imports sea shrimp, and Export Packers Company imports prawns. Because forced labour is widespread in Burma, and the military has a tight control over the economy, the ethical nature of all economic projects in this country is questionable. Now, we have specific proof connecting forced labour to the production of shrimp in Burma.
According to the Mon Information Service, there has been a government prawn-raising project at Kyauk Minaw and Kanyawbyin villages in Lauglon township since the time of the Burma Socialist Programme Party administration (before Sept. 1988). The present ruling military regime SLORC/SPDC continued the project after it came to power in 1988. This government-owned prawn-raising project has been maintained solely by means of forced labour and extortion from the local population and prawn businessmen. Local prawn businessmen are required to contribute young prawns, according to the quotas set by the SLORC/SPDC prawn project officials, while several local villages are required to contribute labour for the construction of all necessary buildings and lakes. Local villages are also required to perform round-the-clock guard at the prawn-raising project sites, though there are some 20 to 30 SLORC/SPDC military and police personnel present there for the project's security.
Burma is a country rich in natural resources. Unfortunately, these riches are being exploited by the military for profit to sustain themselves, at the expense of the people (see environment). Some of the world's last remaining old-growth teak forests are in Burma, and like the rest of the country, are being ravaged by Burma's junta. Teak, often sold through back-door channels in Thailand, is a major source of hard currency for the regime. Teak is often cut and milled using forced labour which is often accompanied by beatings, rapes and other abuses. Teak from Burma may be for sale in stores in your area: furniture stores, flooring stores, woodworker wholesale yards or by boat sellers. Again, if you find teak from Burma, please notify CFOB with information of which store is selling and write a letter yourself explaining the human rights implications of importing from Burma.
For more information on the teak connection, please contact the Philadelphia Burma Roundtable
Help CFOB to track down which stores are selling "Made in Myanmar" products by helping to monitor the stores in your area. Because access to which companies are selling Burmese products is very difficult to obtain in Canada, people are needed to scout out the fine print on a store by store basis. With CFOB acting as a centralized information gatherer, individuals and groups can report back the names of stores where "Made in Myanmar" labels are found. If it is a garment product, please write down the CA number on the label and send the information to CFOB so that we can keep our lists updated. With the CA number, we are able to track the size of the shipment in which the garment came and from which company in Burma.
You can also help to stop the flow of Burmese imports coming into Canada by putting pressure on the businesses in question.. Write the store a letter or you can buy the product and then return it with a letter of explanation.