Lifted Trade Bans to Burma: A Boon to Fashion Industry?

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President Obama on Monday during his historic visit to Myanmar met with opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Before his arrival, the United States lifted most trade bans that had been in place against Myanmar since 2003.

Washington—Myanmar, also known as Burma, once a source of apparel, textile and accessories imports to the United States until the U.S., European Union, Canada etc. imposed a trade ban in 2003, may again become an import source with the lifting of some trade sanctions.

Ahead of President Obama’s historic trip to Rangoon on Monday, the U.S. Treasury and State Departments announced an easement of sanctions aimed at rewarding the Southern Asian country’s shift away from an oppressive military rule and toward democratic reforms. Among other reforms, opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi was elected to the legislature.

“Today’s joint actions… are intended to support the Burmese government’s ongoing reform efforts and to encourage further change, as well as to offer new opportunities for Burmese and American businesses,” the U.S. Treasury and State Departments said in a joint statement Friday.

The move was expected since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said last September the sanctions were reviewed and scheduled to be lifted. That follows eased financial and investment sanctions against Burma last July which allow new U.S. investment for the first time in nearly 15 years. Moreover, the EU lifted most of its trade and economic sanctions against Burma in April. In fact, the EU gave the country trade preferences including duty and quota free access for apparel into European markets for the first time since 1997.

Before the ban was introduced, apparel and related products made up most of  country’s exports to the United States. In 2002,  the last full year before the import ban was imposed, the United States imported about $356.4 million of apparel and other goods from Myanmar. (Meanwhile U.S. companies allowed to export to Myanmar have seen shipments increase to $48 million.)

While trade with Myanmar is likely to increase—especially in apparel and related categories—it still will be tiny in comparison with the $36 billion in trade the United States and neighbor Thailand did in 2011.

The lifting of most sanctions was supported by fashion industry associations, most notably the The American Apparel & Footwear Association (AAFA), one of the first groups to urge  sanctions in the first place.

But Gemstone Bans to Continue

“We also look forward to working with Burmese stakeholders to ensure that apparel and footwear produced in Burma is done so under socially responsible conditions, where workers are afforded opportunities and are treated with fairness and respect,” Kevin M. Burke, AAFA’s ceo, said last September.

Although many of the sanctions have been lifted, some remain, most notably the ban on some gemstones such as Burmese jadeite and rubies due to continued concerns about human rights, etc.

Brian Leber, founder of the U.S.-based Jewelers’ Burma Relief Project, remains concerned that many political and human rights issues remain unaddressed, but that the Obama administration’s view that “you need to start somewhere.”

“It’s much easier to monitor sectors like textile production, where manufacturing centers in places like Rangoon can be inspected and monitored and any U.S. companies doing business directly with a producer in Burma can be held accountable, versus a sector like gemstones, which is somewhat unique in it’s opacity, its circumlocutory path of getting goods to market, and it’s a trade still rife with human rights violations and exploitation,” Leber said.

In Myanmar’s Kachin state where many of the mines are located, for instance, violence and gang-rapes continue in what Leber and human rights activist call a virtual “war zone.”






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