Who Do We Hurt When We Boycott Burma?


You might think that Burma Campaign Australia’s latest victory — pressuring an Australian company, Specialty Fashion Group, to stop sourcing garments manufactured in Burma — would be welcome news for the country’s repressed people. "Corporate Australia needs to put people before profits and do the right thing by the people of Burma and withdraw," a Burma Campaign spokesperson said on 12 October.

But, here’s the thing: very few people in the country would agree that a company abandoning them to appease a lobby group is the right thing. This debate — whether or not it’s ethical to operate in Burma — takes place almost exclusively outside the country. It is conducted by people who don’t live here and who don’t have the opportunity to meet the people who suffer the effects of sanctions and boycotts.

Pullouts like that announced by the Specialty Fashion Group cost jobs that are all too rare in an economy that is, in the words of Associate Professor Sean Turnell of Macquarie University’s Department of Economics, "essentially moribund".

In 2003, when the US strengthened sanctions against Burma, banning all imports from the country, as many as 100,000 garment workers, mostly women, lost their jobs. Reports in local media and from international NGOs working in the country revealed that many had quickly found new employment — either as illegal migrant workers in Thailand or in the local sex trade.

Just months after those sanctions were introduced, the US State Department acknowledged their "unfortunate" impact on "ordinary" Burmese people. "We have credible reports that the concern voiced by some INGOs (NGOs) concerning the fate of these women is well founded and that some have entered the flourishing illegal sex and entertainment industries," Mathew Daley, the deputy assistant secretary of State for the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told a government hearing in 2003.

Currently, 120 garment factories employ about 85,000 workers — down from a high of 300 factories prior to 2003. As Specialty Fashion Group hasn’t yet disclosed where the garments it sourced are manufactured, or how many the company has been purchasing annually, it’s difficult to estimate the effect its departure will have on the industry here.

The latest figures from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade show that in 2008, when Australia was Burma’s 19th-largest export destination, clothing imports totalled AU$6 million. In terms of Specialty Fashion Group’s annual turnover — more than half a billion dollars in each of the past two years — that figure is a drop in the ocean.

But the departure of Speciality Fashion group will certainly have an impact on ordinary workers.

What is all the more surprising is that Burma Campaign Australia has the support of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, whose president, Sharon Burrow, earlier this month wrote an article for newmatilda.com arguing that the only "people who benefit from these business dealings are the military junta". Further, she writes, "companies that do business in Burma are helping to fund the military dictatorship’s long-term financial viability and its systematic human rights violations."

It’s an emotional argument and no one denies that the people of Burma deserve better than a military government that openly squanders the country’s natural wealth. But as one worker who lost her job in a garment factory in 2003 recently asked, "Where are our human rights?" She told a local newspaper, "I’ve been selling flowers on the streets of Yangon for my survival for years now, as I have no regular job."

Specialty Fashion Group’s company secretary, Howard Herman, stated that "Burma’s violation of Speciality Fashion Group’s Human and Social Rights Compliance requirements has meant that we can no longer deal with any company trading in Burma". The company’s press release stressed its Human and Social Rights Compliance policy, which has a focus on worker’s rights and prohibits the use of child and forced labour in its factories," adding references to a recent US Department of Labor report which documented "the extensive use of forced and child labour in industries in Burma".

All this is true — except for the fact that Burma’s garment sector was not among those industries the report cited as using forced or child labour. And if Specialty Fashion Group was purchasing garments made in Thailand, China, India, Malaysia, Jordan or Argentina, or footwear from Bangladesh, Brazil, China, India or Indonesia, where forced labour, child labour or a combination of both are being used to make such products, this boycott could seem slightly hypocritical. In the case of Thailand, many of the victims of child and forced labour are illegal migrant workers from Myanmar.

While calling for boycotts of Burma is nothing new, given recent stops by the US to re-engage the country’s leadership, this latest push from Burma Campaign Australia is strangely timed. A more constructive approach to Burma is required, one which couples engagement — and potentially investment — with targeted sanctions that prohibit financial transactions with the country’s oppressors.

Accordingly, Burma Campaign Australia’s renewed calls for boycott have garnered little support, with the Australian National University’s Nicholas Farrelly calling for "less of these tired rhetorical flourishes". In an excellent 12 October article for Inside Story, he writes that "[The US government’s moves to engage with Myanmar] threaten to wrong-foot those who consider sanctions alone will lead to progress".

Perhaps sensing this change in mood, detained National League for Democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi seems to also have relaxed her stance on economic sanctions. In a letter to military leader Senior General Than Shwe last month, she "proposed to cooperate with the SPDC for lifting sanctions imposed on Burma", according to an unofficial translation of the letter doing the rounds.

It is a dramatic turnaround from Suu Kyi who in the past has called for a travel boycott and moratorium on aid to Myanmar, in addition to financial sanctions. However, many analysts consider it a shrewd move that has put her back in the political picture.

Indeed, just last week, diplomats from the US, Britain and Australia were granted permission to meet with the detained Nobel Laureate. In Australia’s case, the 9 October meeting was the the first opportunity for discussion between officials and Suu Kyi since early 2003.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.