Anti-Myanmar activists have applauded data from the US Department of Commerce which shows the military-ruled country's apparel exports to the United States fell by 35 per cent between January and March this year.

The Free Burma Coalition said apparel imports from Myanmar had plummeted to $76 million in the first three months of 2002, from $116 million last year as more and more US firms boycott the country amid accusations of human rights and labour abuses.

Thirty US firms, including Wal-Mart, Kenneth Cole, Hanes and Gart Sports, have announced over the last two years that they would stop selling goods manufactured in the former Burma. "We're heartened that American companies are extricating themselves from Burma's brutal system of forced labour," said Judy Nutter, a national officer for the one million member United Methodist Women, one of 30 organisations calling for companies to stop production in the country.

Companies sourcing goods from Burma have come under increasing criticism from human rights groups as the pervasive use of forced labour by Burma's military dictatorship has come to light.

The US State Department Country Report on Human Rights released on March 4th, 2002 drew the connection between forced labour and the export of garments: "Forced labour, including forced child labour, has contributed materially to the construction of industrial parks subsequently used largely to produce manufactured exports, including garments."

A group of 22 Senators, led by Tom Harkin (D-IA) and Jesse Helms (R-NC), has introduced legislation that would ban all imports from Burma in response to the International Labor Organization's call for its member countries to ensure they do not contribute to forced labour in Burma.

However, many companies doing business in Burma have already expressed their concern over human rights abuses in the country. Gart Sports, the United States' second largest retailer of sports apparel and operator of 180 stores in 25 states, recently cancelled plans for $1 million in new orders from Burma, stating: "We thought it was the right thing to do".

Adding uncertainty to Burma's already unstable investment and production market, the dictatorship recently stopped issuing import licenses to foreign companies in an apparent bid to give local companies an advantage.

The decline in imports from Burma marks a major reversal of recent trends. Since 1997, when the United States imposed a ban on new US investment in the country over human rights, democracy, and drug concerns, apparel imports from the country skyrocketed 480 per cent to over $400 million per year in the regime's apparent attempt to garner more foreign exchange. However, apparel imports from Burma decreased from $116 million in January-March 2001 to $75 million in January-March 2002.