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Pentagon's Race to the Bottom Continues to Burma

December 22, 2000

WASHINGTON, DC   Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney (D-GA), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, announced today that she will ask the Government Accounting Office (GAO) to expand its inquiry into the Army and Air Force Exchange Service's (AAFES) use of sweatshop labor, after a leading anti-sweatshop watchdog, Charles Kernaghan of the National Labor Committee for Human Rights (NLC), produced shipping records showing that AAFES imports garments from a sweatshop in Burma.

"Last week, President Clinton awarded the Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian award, to Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma's Nobel Prize winning advocate for democracy. At that very moment, she was being held under house arrest by a brutal military regime that has earned worldwide condemnation for repression and the use of forced labor," Mckinney continued. "The US has imposed economic sanctions on Burma, in much the same way as we did in the 1980's against the apartheid regime in South Africa. Yet, the US military has decided to support this oppressive regime, and undermine the efforts of President Clinton and Human Rights groups worldwide. I cannot understand what the Pentagon must be thinking," McKinney stated.

Burma is ruled by a military government that has remained in power despite suffering an overwhelming defeat in a 1990 election that saw Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy win 82% of seats in the Burmese Parliament. In 1997. The Clinton Administration, with bipartisan support in Congress imposed a ban on all new investment in Burma but Kernaghan produced shipping records and labels from clothing purchased in US stores showing that major US retailers are purchasing from sweatshops in Burma.

A spokesman for AAFES was careful to point out that the Pentagon is aware of the sanctions against Burma, but the sanctions only applied to new investments. However, while not violating the letter of the law, they are clearly working in contradiction to American policy. "The fact that our Department of Defense is propping up one of the most oppressive military regimes in the world is ludicrous. AAFES is not only contributing to the violation of human rights and labor rights, they are jeopardizing our national security to save a few cents on a pair of jeans," McKinney concluded.

Burmese Sales to the Pentagon Sparks Criticism
By STEVEN GREENHOUSE NY Times Dec. 19, 2000

Pentagon agency that runs stores on American military bases imported $138,290 in clothing made in Myanmar at a time when the Clinton administration had banned new investments in that country, documents show. While such purchases are not illegal, they violate the spirit of the administration's economic sanctions, critics in Congress and in human rights groups are saying. Shipping documents show that the agency, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, imported the clothing from Myanmar, the former Burma, in October when the administration was stepping up its criticism of human rights violations by the country's military government.

Human rights groups, labor activists and Cynthia A. McKinney, a Georgia Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, have criticized the agency, saying that its imports of goods helped prop up Myanmar's military. "This is obscene," said Maureen Aung-Thwin, director of the Burma Project at the Open Society Institute, a New York-based foundation pushing for democracy in Myanmar. "For the Pentagon to support this illegitimate military junta is absurd, especially when the nation's official foreign policy is to help end the repression there."

But Fred Bluhm, a spokesman for the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which had $7.3 billion in sales last year at its 1,400 stores, said: "We're aware of the sanctions against Burma, but they have nothing to do with the sale or purchase of goods or services. What they have to do with are new investments, which we're not involved with." In 1997, President Clinton announced a ban on new investment in Myanmar, following a law that required sanctions if the military there engaged in "large scale repression." The Clinton administration has not prohibited trade with Myanmar although it has often discouraged Americans from doing business with that country.
In obtaining goods from Myanmar, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service followed a strategy embraced by many American apparel companies, which, seeking to benefit from low-wage labor, have greatly increased imports from that country. Some studies have found that Myanmar's apparel workers earn just 8 cents an hour, making them among the world's lowest paid manufacturing workers.

In the first nine months of this year, American apparel companies imported $308 million in goods from Myanmar, more than double the level in the same period a year earlier. An administration foreign policy official criticized the exchange services' imports from Myanmar, saying, "It's not consistent with the spirit of the administration's policy, which is very confrontational toward the regime." The documents showing that the Army and Air Force Exchange Service imported goods from Myanmar were obtained from the National Labor Committee, a New York-based labor rights group that seeks to improve factory conditions overseas.
The documents show that the exchange service had about 10,000 pounds of garments made by the Newest Garment Manufacturing Company sent from Yangon, formerly Rangoon, to Los Angeles, arriving Oct. 19. The documents did not specify what garments had been sent. When President Clinton announced the ban on investment, he said he was seeking to deny any economic support to Myanmar's regime. The military refused to recognize the 1988 election victory by the opposition party and its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, who has been under house arrest for 6 of the last 11 years.

Two weeks ago, the president awarded the nation's highest civilian honor, the Medal of Freedom, to Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi. Her son accepted the award. Several days earlier, four Senators - Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina; Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky; Tom Harkin, Democrat of Iowa; and Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont - wrote to President Clinton to urge him to ban all apparel imports from Myanmar as a way to advance Mrs. Aung San Suu Kyi's efforts to restore democracy. They wrote, "The 1997 U.S. sanctions law on new investment in Burma primarily was clearly intended to deprive the Burmese military junta of funds with which to perpetuate human rights abuses and ethnic cleansing campaigns and to pressure the junta into commencing a dialogue with Suu Kyi's political party and ethnic minorities. Unfortunately, the new surge in apparel exports to the U.S. undermines the spirit of that law, allowing the regime to enrich itself and take advantage of unsuspecting American consumers."

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