The Principles people pull out of Burma

Andrew Marshall on Burton Group's decision that followed yesterday's Independent report
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The Independent Online
The Burton Group said that it was severing its business links with Burma yesterday, immediately before a BBC Newsnight documentary was due to document its ties to the country.

"The Burton Group has today instructed its suppliers to place no further contracts for sourcing from Burma, and to terminate all existing contracts by no later than the end of this year," said a statement. "It is the Burton Group's policy to listen to its customers and this decision has been taken following a review of customer opinion towards merchandise sourced from Burma."

The Burton Group, one of Britain's largest retailers, owns Burton Menswear, Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Evans, Topshop and Top Man, and Principles.

The Independent reported yesterday that Burton was one of several British companies which sourced its clothes from Burma. However, a spokesperson for the company said that the timing of the pull-out was completely unrelated to either the report in The Independent or the BBC programme, set to be broadcast last night.

Instead, they said that it was the result of comment from customers, who had expressed unhappiness with the policy of buying from Burma. "We have a policy of listening to our customers," the spokesperson reiterated.

Aung San Suu Kyi won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize for her non-violent campaign for democracy in Burma, a year after the opposition, led by her National League for Democracy, won parliamentary elections. The ruling military council never honoured the result.

The Burma Action Group said that the announcement was very good news. It has mounted a letter-writing campaign against Burton's investment, and regarded this as a success. "It goes to show that UK consumers are increasingly ethical consumers," said Yvette Mahon, co-ordinator of the group. "This sends a very strong signal to the military in Burma of increasing world isolation."

According to official Burmese figures, Britain is in second place after Singapore in the league table of investors in Burma, with over $660m (pounds 400m) of British investors' money invested last year. Most of this is accounted for by stakes in the gas and oil sector, but there is also considerable interest in buying garments from the country, one of the world's lowest cost suppliers.

Many American companies have already retreated from Burma. When it left the country, the jeans manufacturer Levi Strauss said: "Under current conditions, it is not possible to do business in Burma, without directly supporting the military government and its pervasive violations of human rights."

The Government said yesterday it would consider signing a number of international human rights accords as part of its commitment to make human rights a central goal of its foreign policy, Reuters reports. Foreign Office minister Tony Lloyd told 20 human rights organisations that the Government planned to launch a major review of its international human rights policy.

In particular, it would examine whether to accede to protocols to the European Convention on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.