The Myanmar Coup
February 10, 2021
The military coup last week in Myanmar is a cruel setback for the cause of democracy and has significant implications for the global apparel supply chain and for university apparel.
It was the advent of civilian rule in Myanmar in 2015, after decades of dictatorship, that led to the lifting of US economic sanctions and to the decision of some US apparel brands, with the support of the human rights community, to begin sourcing from Myanmar. Since that time, sourcing has grown rapidly and brands, globally, purchased $5 billion worth of clothing from the country in 2020. Brands and retailers continued to increase production, despite the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingya minority in 2017 and 2018, carried out by the still-powerful military with the acquiescence of the civilian leadership.
Last week, the military ended the country’s progress toward democracy, detaining the elected civilian leadership and reestablishing military dictatorship.
The people of the country have responded with mass peaceful protests, demanding the restoration of the civilian government. The labor movement is speaking out strongly for democracy. Here is a statement signed by 16 of the country’s leading labor unions. It is unclear whether this public outcry will convince the military to reverse course.
There are nine factories in Myanmar producing university logo apparel for two licensees, Cutter & Buck and 47 Brand. At this juncture, the human rights community has not called on brands to leave the country, and the US has not imposed new sanctions. However, the situation is developing. Calls for boycotts and/or the reimposition of US sanctions could occur in the future. Human rights groups have called on brands not to source from factories with ties to the military dictatorship, including factories that have chosen to locate in industrial parks operated by corporations controlled by the military. Fortunately, none of the factories making collegiate apparel are in these military-run parks.
An immediate concern is that factory owners across the garment industry may be pressured by the military to retaliate against unions or individual workers perceived to be supporting the restoration of democracy. We are reaching out to the licensees sourcing from the country to ask them to advise their suppliers that they must not violate workers’ rights in furtherance of the military dictatorship’s political goals. If factories hear this message from buyers, the military is less likely to try to use factories as a tool to attack unions and workers, and factories are less likely to acquiesce to any such demands.
We are monitoring the situation closely and will update you as circumstances warrant. In the meantime, our hearts are with the brave people marching in the streets in defense of democracy, in the face of a military dictatorship that has historically shown little reluctance to use violence against peaceful protestors.