U.S. Companies Still Importing Teak From Myanmar Despite Sanctions, Data Shows

A report on global trade data showed U.S. companies were still buying teak wood from Myanmar as recently as last month despite the government placing sanctions on the country last year after its military seized power.

Teak is a tropical hardwood tree found in Thailand, India and Myanmar. The wood is used to build furniture, flooring, window frames and bridges. It's one of the most valuable types of hardwood, making it desirable for construction across the globe, according to Britannica.

The U.S. Treasury announced sanctions against Myanmar in April 2021 banning any importation or business with the Myanmar Timber Enterprise (MTE). Any form of transaction between people and companies within the U.S. and Myanmar is forbidden.

However, data from the Panjiva global trade database showed American companies ignored the sanctions and have been accepting shipments of teak imported from Myanmar as recently as December.

At least 82 different shipments of teak were reported between February 1 and November 30 of last year.

Myanmar is the world's largest exporter of teak, and it's one of the country's most valuable industries, making millions of dollars in export fees and taxes every year.

The European Union is struggling with a similar trend in illegal teak shipments after it too implemented similar sanctions in June.

U.S. Companies Buying Teak Despite Sanctions
Data shows that U.S. companies are still buying teak from Myanmar despite the U.S. placing sanctions on the country after the military seized power last year. Above, a young Burmese boy who labels logs for exportation climbs on top of teak wood marked for export in a government-run lumberyard on June 11, 2003, in Pyin Ma Bin, Myanmar. Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

The human rights group Justice for Myanmar compiled the data. It is urging the U.S. and other governments to crack down on the teak trade in line with sanctions against the country's military leadership.

Those U.S. Treasury has also imposed sanctions on the country's military-appointed minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation.

By buying through intermediaries, though, importers are skirting the sanctions, the report contends.

"Considering that sanctions aim to block trade with MTE, and the timber exported from Myanmar is originally auctioned by MTE," the military still receives funds from the trade "no matter who officially exports the timber," the report said.

It urged the U.S. government to enforce the sanctions and to investigate possible breaches of the restrictions.

It is not clear exactly where the teak ends up, since it is imported by suppliers of timber for construction and other manufacturers. But teak is often used for patio furniture, decking and yachts because of its flexibility and durability.

Myanmar's military, headed by Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, deposed the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy on February 1, 2021. Suu Kyi was arrested and charged with about a dozen crimes. On Monday, the 76-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate was sentenced to four more years in prison, on top of the two-year sentence she was ordered to serve from earlier cases.

The military takeover has drawn nonviolent nationwide demonstrations, which security forces have quashed with deadly force, killing more than 1,400 civilians, according to a detailed list compiled by the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Peaceful protests have continued, but an armed resistance to the crackdown has been building, to the point that U.N. experts have warned the country could be sliding into civil war.

One teak auction held in June 2021 of about 10,300 tons of illegally harvested timber that had been confiscated by Suu Kyi's government brought in $5 million in revenue, local news reports said.

Myanmar's military sold that timber from a stockpile of about 200,000 tons of illegal timber, the reports said.

Myanmar began allowing private companies to set up teak and other timber plantations in 2006, ending a state monopoly on the industry. In 2014, the government banned exports of all raw timber, lifting the ban for timber from state-run and private plantations but keeping it in place for timber from natural forests.

Teak exports are subject to a special approval process.

But a sizable share of the teak shipped out of the country is smuggled across land borders. The data from Panjiva included only teak shipped directly from Myanmar, not other exports through intermediate destinations such as Eastern Europe, Taiwan and Thailand.

The sanctions related to the coup overlay other restrictions on imports of teak meant to protect dwindling tropical forests, given that teak and some other species are in danger of becoming extinct in the wild.

The European Union has strict requirements for documenting the origins of each log or plank of lumber. Myanmar suppliers often have not provided such clear proof that the wood being exported has been legally harvested, environmental groups and reports by the EU have shown.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.