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As the Olympics Approach, Women Concerned with the Indignity Exemplified

Kelly Martini
Executive secretary for communications
Women's Division
General Board of Global Ministries
The United Methodist Church

475 Riverside Drive, #1501
New York, NY 10115


Those who carry the International Olympic torch exemplify the dignity, strength and perseverance of humankind. Ironically, the torchbearers for the Salt Lake City-based Olympics will be wearing uniforms that exemplify the opposite of these.

The Economic Justice office of the Women's Division of The United Methodist Church signed on to two letters this week with the Free Burma Coalition and other organizations concerned with human rights in Burma (Myanmar). One letter has been sent to Jacque Rogge, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president. The other letter is going to Daryl Santos, president of Marker Outerwear, who makes the torch bearer's uniforms.

One letter demands that Marker Outerwear take immediate action to end all sourcing, licensing, and/or retailing of products made in Burma and to end all ties to the military dictatorship of the country. Burma has become known internationally for slave labor and human rights abuses. The letter to the Olympic Committee seeks clarification on the committee's contract with Marker Outerwear as an official supplier to the Olympics and asks that the committee denounce further production in Burma.

"Given that the Olympic charter calls for the preservation of human dignity, the International Olympic Committee's purchase of goods from Burma undermines the very ideals that the Olympic Games promote," says the letter. "We hope that our discovery of the Burmese-made Olympic Torchbearer uniforms was a dramatic oversight by the committee."

The letter goes on to ask the IOC to make a public statement denouncing the further use of production in Burma.

Both letters explain that Burma's ruling military regime employs a brutal system of forced labor. From 1996-1998, the International Labor Organization (ILO) carried out a monumental investigation into forced labor in Burma. More than 10,00 pages of documents, 246 interviews with refugees, and information from government sources comprised a comprehensive report on the situation in Burma. The report called the situation: "a saga of untold misery and suffering, oppression and exploitation of large sections of the population inhabiting Myanmar (Burma) by the Government, military and other public officers."

The government of Burma has pressed over 5.5 million people, 11 percent of the population, into slavery in the past decade. That's comparable to the number of slaves in the United States at the beginning of the Civil War, according to a Women's Division-produced video about the issue. The recognition of severe human rights violations is not unrecognized by other companies. In the past 19 months, 26 U.S. clothing companies have cut ties to Burma. Wal-Mart, IKEA and Spiegel, who had products made there, will no longer accept merchandise made in this country.

The concern over labor in Burma is an ongoing issue for the Women's Division. A January 5 article in the Washington Post credits the Free Burma Coalition and supporting organizations as "using pressure tactics like those anti-apartheid activists deployed against U.S. companies doing business in South Africa in the 1980s" in order to persuade U.S. companies not to do business in Burma.

"The coalition has linked with 26 other human rights, religious and labor organizations, including the American Anti-Slavery Group, the Women's Division of the United Methodist Church, the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights and the National Labor Committee," says the Washington Post article. In June 2000, the Women's Division signed on to an amicus brief presented to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court looked at whether a Massachusetts law could limit state purchases in Burma because of the country's human rights' abuses. Massachusetts gave a 10% cost preference to bids from companies not doing business in Burma.

In March 2001, one Women's Division executive and two directors traveled to Burma to investigate the situation of women in that country. They found a country where women's voices were silenced, the government refused journalists access, and scores of people had been arrested for political reasons or because of their ethnicity.

Last summer, United Methodist Women at schools of Christian Mission and in their own units participated in letter-writing campaigns which led to the United States government issuing a list of products barred from federal purchase since they were produced in Burma.

The Women's Division represents United Methodist Women, a one-million member organization whose purpose is to foster spiritual growth, develop leaders and advocate for justice. Members raise more than $20 million a year for programs and projects related to women, children and youth in the United States and in more than 100 countries around the world.


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Topic: Advocacy Economy Human rights International affairs
Geographic Region: Myanmar-BurmaUnited States
Source: WD Press Releases
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Date posted: Feb 06, 2002