On the opening day of the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is being urged to investigate and apologize for buying its official Torchbearer uniforms from Myanmar (formerly Burma) whose record of labor and human rights abuses has been denounced by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and Western governments.
In a letter sent to the IOC's president, Jacques Rogge, the head of the
Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions
(ICFTU), said the choice of a Burmese factory to produce the uniforms was particularly inappropriate given the IOC's stated goal to "contribute to building a peaceful and better world."
"The Olympic flame is a sign of hope, not repression," said Guy Ryder,
secretary general of the ICFTU which represents 157 million workers in
226 unions worldwide. "The IOC should immediately act to disassociate
itself from those trading with tyranny in Burma and reaffirm the
historic values of the Olympic Games."
Grassroots human rights groups in the United States have also protested
the purchase, which reportedly was arranged by the IOC's official
"Every purchase of a made-in-Burma product supports the military
regime," said David Moore of the American Anti-Slavery Group (AASG). Noting the exodus of U.S. companies from Burma in recent years, he added, "Everyone else is getting out of Burma - and with good reason. The IOC should follow suit."
Burma, which was renamed Myanmar by a military junta shortly after it
seized power in 1988, has been considered one of the world's worst
violators of human rights and became particularly notorious for its system of forced labor, denounced in 1998 by the ILO as "a saga of untold misery and suffering."
In an action unprecedented in its 82-year history, the ILO last year
effectively suspended Burma from its membership and appealed for all its government, business, and labor members to reassess any ties they had with the country.
Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace laureate whose party swept 1990
elections that were annulled by the junta, has also appealed for foreign businesses to withdraw from Burma as a way of putting pressure on the regime to give up power. President Bill Clinton imposed a ban on all new investments by U.S. companies in Burma in 1997.
Activists in the U.S. first became aware of the uniform's origin when a local runner in Massachusetts, chosen as one of the more than 11,500 official Torchbearers who helped carry the Olympic Flame to Salt Lake City, found a "Made in Myanmar" label on the uniform. The runner was a youth who had escaped slavery in Sudan, one of a tiny handful of countries where, as in Burma, forced labor is still tolerated.
The word spread from AASG to the Free Burma Coalition (FBC), a grassroots group which has played a leading role in getting some two dozen U.S. states and cities to pass laws that make it more difficult for companies that invest in Burma to obtain public contracts.
Most of the 1,000 activists who emailed protests to the IOC since
earlier this week have received replies signed by the Media Relations
department of the Salt Lake Organizing Committee (SLOC) which indicated
that the Committee thought Burma and Myanmar were two separate
"The torch relay clothes were NOT made in Burma. They were manufactured
in Myanmar," said the response. "In fact they were made in the exact
same factory that produces clothes for GAP, North Face and other major
When it was pointed out in subsequent emails from activists that Burma
and Myanmar were in fact the same country, the department apologized for the "misinformation," admitted that the pants and shell top of the uniform were manufactured at a textile plant in "Burma/Myanmar" and noted that their manufacture "complied with all applicable laws."
An official one-sentence press statement released by the SLOC also
stressed that it had broken no U.S. laws by importing the clothing from
"They still don't get it," said FBC's Washington director, Jeremy
Woodrum. "We understand the IOC's desire to avoid political issues, but forced labor and slavery are so universally reviled that the Olympics is undermining the very values it aims to promote."
Meanwhile, a spokesman at GAP, the clothes retailer, strongly
denied that it had purchased clothing in Burma, as the SLOC's first email response had stated.
"We've never sourced in Burma," said Jamie Edgerton. "Burma has never been on our approved country list. I'm not sure where they got that information from."
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