Myanmar teak export continues to fund military junta

A rights group citing trade data says US companies imported nearly 1,600 tonnes of Myanmar teak, despite sanctions.

By Robin Gomes

Following last year’s 1 February military coup in Myanmar, the US Treasury in April imposed multiple targeted sanctions directed against the junta, including banning dealings with Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE).  The state-owned company is the sole authority overseeing the export of timber selling it through auctions to private companies.

Even though its natural forests are dwindling, Myanmar is the world’s biggest producer of teak, one of the most valuable hardwoods with a variety of uses such as in yachts, home flooring, doors, shipbuilding, outdoor decking, window frames and furniture. 

US imported 1,600 tonnes of Burma teak

Justice for Myanmar, a rights group campaigning for justice and accountability for the people of Myanmar, compiled data from Panjiva, a New York-based global trade data company, showing that American importers were still receiving shipments of teak from Myanmar.  

Data showed that nearly 1,600 tonnes of Burma teak were imported by US companies in 82 different shipments between February 1 and November 30, 2021.  Among these companies are East Teak Fine Hardwoods, J. Gibson McIlvain, Kingsley Bate Warehouse, Lumberbest, and World Panel Products. This indicates that companies are circumventing sanctions by trading via intermediaries, keeping the link to MTE indirect.  

Justice for Myanmar pointed out that since the original auctioneer is the MTE, “the military junta still receives funds from the trade no matter who officially exports the timber”. 

This indirect trade between companies in the US and MTE may not have attracted penalties from the US Treasury at this stage.

Ban all Myanmar timber imports

Justice for Myanmar thus called for urgent action urging “the US Government to ban all Myanmar timber imports to prevent further revenue from reaching the illegal military junta”. 

“Continuing trade in timber from Myanmar,” it said, “supports the illegal military junta that is committing atrocity crimes with total impunity, including the indiscriminate murder of children.”   

“Through such targeted sanctions on imports from military-controlled industries in Myanmar, the US and other countries have the power to cut the financial flow to the illegal junta and support the Myanmar people’s struggle to end this tyranny and establish federal democracy.”

Justice for Myanmar also noted similar trends in the European Union, which also imposed similar sanctions on Myanmar’s military in June, banning dealings with Myanmar’s Forest Products Joint Venture Corp.

Junta’s atrocities

Myanmar’s military, headed by Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, deposed the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, imprisoning her and other elected leaders.  The coup triggered widespread protests and strikes, calling for her release and the restoration of the democratic process.  This prompted a brutal crackdown on the opponents of the junta.

According to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP), a group that documents and compiles fatalities and arrests, Myanmar’s security forces have has killed more than 1,400 people so far and are currently holding more than 8,500 in prison.

A court on Monday sentenced Suu Kyi, to four more years in prison, in addition to 2 years last month.  The 76-year-old Nobel Peace has been detained on about a dozen charges, all of which could combine to maximum sentences of more than 100 years in prison. Suu Kyi denies all charges.

Threat of civil war

The junta’s bloody crackdown on opponents has also reignited the military’s old conflicts with some of the armed ethnic organizations that are backing the protesters. Several independent civil resistance groups have also sprung up in self-defence.

The widening conflict, particularly in predominantly Christian regions inhabited by the Kachin, Chin, Karen, and Kayah ethnic groups, has resulted in churches being shelled and raided. Priests and pastors have been arrested while many unarmed civilians, including Christians, have been killed. United Nations experts have warned the country could slide into a full-blown civil war with further drastic consequences.