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Memo Feeds Concern That Exports to U.S. Help Burmese Junta

New York Times  |  March 1, 2001  |  Share  |  Source article

Myanmar, which has been governed by a military junta for more than a dozen years, is rapidly increasing apparel exports to the United States despite American economic sanctions.

A newly declassified State Department cable describes how factories in Myanmar, formerly Burma, have produced garments for leading American designers and retailers, including Kenneth Cole, Nautica, Jordache, Kmart and Wal-Mart.

The cable, written by the American Embassy in Myanmar's capital, Yangon, to the secretary of state voices concern that Myanmar's military leaders are benefiting financially from these shipments because most of the factories are joint ventures partly owned by the military government.

''The Burmese garment industry is booming -- growing 45 percent in the last year,'' said the cable dated last July.

In 1999, the cable said, Myanmar exported $168 million worth of garments to the United States, but those shipments more than doubled last year, soaring to $403.7 million. That places Burma's apparel exports to the United States well above France's, at about the same level as Israel's exports to the United States.

Four years ago, President Bill Clinton banned new American investments in Myanmar, but the government has not banned all trade, although it has encouraged companies not to do business there. Mr. Clinton took those actions because of the military junta's repression of the democratic opposition and its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.

The cable was obtained from Senator Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who along with Senator Jesse Helms, a North Carolina Republican, and Senator Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, has called for the ban on apparel imports from Myanmar. ''Here we have perhaps the most brutally repressive military regime in the world,'' Senator Harkin said. ''And by importing all this apparel from there, we're putting close to half a billion dollars into their coffers every year.''

Most of Myanmar's garment factories, the cable states, have been financed by Korean, Taiwanese and Hong Kong manufacturers that have turned to Myanmar because they are bumping up against quotas imposed by the United States limiting imports from their countries.

Jessica Moser, a Wal-Mart spokeswoman, said the company's American stores stopped importing apparel from Myanmar three years ago. She added that Wal-Mart stores in other countries only stopped such imports about a year ago.

Michele Jasukaitis, of Kmart, said, ''We do not import directly from Burma, and we double-check our distribution centers for any indirect imports from Burma.''

Kenneth Cole officials acknowledged that one of the designer's subcontractors had been importing sweaters from Burma, but the company said it terminated such imports from Myanmar as soon as it learned about them several months ago.

Nautica and Jordache officials did not return telephone calls.

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