Press

Pentagon Will Stop Importing Burmese Clothes for 1,400 PX's

New York Times |  By Steven Greenhouse | December, 22 2000 |  Share  | Source Article

The Pentagon announced yesterday that a Defense Department agency that runs 1,400 stores at military installations will stop importing clothing from Myanmar.

Pentagon officials announced this policy change after it was reported that the agency, the Army and Air Force Exchange Service, had imported $138,290 in clothing from Myanmar despite a ban by the Clinton administration on investing in that country.

''They have ceased to do business with Burma,'' a spokesman for the Pentagon, Maj. Tim Blair, said, using Myanmar's former name.

In 1997, President Clinton barred all new investment in Myanmar in the hope that such economic sanctions would weaken the junta in Yangon and help bring democracy. United States law does not prohibit imports from Myanmar, although Washington has frequently urged companies not to do business with the country.

Human rights groups, labor rights organizations and several members of Congress praised the Pentagon decision to halt the imports, saying it is important that the Defense Department procurement policies not be seen as helping prop up the Myanmar dictatorship.

''This is a clear victory for democracy,'' said Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the National Labor Committee, a group in New York that seeks to pressure overseas factories to upgrade working conditions. ''We're all very pleased that the U.S. military did not delay in in doing the right thing, in dropping its purchases from Burma.''

In 1988, Myanmar's military refused to recognize the election victory by the opposition party and its leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize winner who has been under house arrest for six of the last 11 years. Two weeks ago, Mr. Clinton awarded her the highest civilian honor of the United States, the Medal of Freedom.

The information about the clothing, first reported in The New York Times, caught the administration off guard, causing one foreign policy official to say, ''One hand of the administration did not know what the other hand was doing.'' That official said the purchases violated the spirit of the sanctions.

This week, 14 members of Congress sent a letter to the General Accounting Office, urging it to investigate the purchasing practices of the Army and Air Force Exchange Service and the conditions in the overseas factories it uses. With $7.3 billion in revenues last year, the exchange service, a nonprofit arm of the Pentagon, is one of the nation's largest retailers.

A spokesman for the service, Fred Bluhm, did not return calls yesterday. On Monday, he defended the purchases from Myanmar, saying new investments there are banned, but not imports from the country.