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Burma: Is that conflict timber on your patio?

Importing Burmese timber is supposed to be illegal. So why are U.S. furniture dealers marketing "Burmese Teak?"

Young Buddhist monks walk on U Bein's bridge in Amarapura near Mandalay Dec. 6, 2006. (Nicky Loh/Reuters)

BANGKOK, Thailand — Though America’s relations with Burma shows signs of thawing, the regime-run country still suffers some of the U.S. government’s heaviest sanctions.

To punish the Burmese government for human rights abuses, the U.S. government won’t let Americans invest in Burma or import its goods. These prohibitions are meant to prevent Americans from buying up Burma’s most desirable resources — such as rare timber and jade — and inadvertently funding the oppressive regime.

Still, U.S. furniture dealers continue to openly market Burmese wood, notably teak, an increasingly rare hardwood prized for its beauty and resilience. Despite Burma’s infamy, and toughening U.S. laws, Americans can still purchase coveted Burmese hardwood off the Web.

WHAT’S SO TERRIBLE ABOUT BUYING BURMESE WOOD?

Sales of any Burmese goods may fund the country’s oppressive junta-run government, accused of forced labor, systematic rape and shelling ethnic villages. Exotic timber is one of the junta’s biggest moneymakers.

In 2007-08, timber was the junta-run government’s fourth largest export, according to the U.K. non-profit Global Witness. The advocacy group, famous for exposing Africa’s “blood diamonds” trade, has lobbied intensely to clean up Burma’s timber trade.

Beyond funding human rights abuses, timber sales also help strip already-ravaged forests. Global Witness’ forestry expert, Jon Buckrell, calls the heavily logged region “one of the most biologically rich and most threatened environments on earth.”

WHO SELLS "BURMESE" WOOD?

As of December 2009, many U.S. companies were openly selling wood labeled as “Burmese” online. They include Floors To Go’s line of "Ulysses Burmese Teak," CanTrust Hardwood’s "Solid Burmese Teak" and Corona Hardwood’s "Burma Mahogany."

Each of these businesses was contacted for comment. Only Corona Hardwood responded, directing questions about the wood’s origin to the importer, Elegance Wood Flooring. That company, through e-mail, also would not comment about its “Burma Mahogany” product, which is advertised as originating in “Burma/Thailand” on its Web site.

WHY DO U.S. BUYERS COVET BURMESE TEAK?

It’s among the most beautiful, resilient hardwood on the planet. It’s resistant to rotting, warping and degrading — even under harsh rain and sun. It was the preferred wood for building Britain’s colonial-era navy. Old-growth teak remains the choice wood for crafting patios, deck furniture or yachts. And it’s a status symbol to boot.

HOW IS BURMESE WOOD IMPORTED INTO THE U.S.?

Though the spirit of the U.S. federal law is clearly against importing Burmese wood, importers have long exploited legal loopholes.

The “Burma Freedom and Democracy Act,” renewed by the U.S. president each year since 2003, bans the import of “any article that is the product of Burma.”

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/thailand/091214/thailand-conflict-timber-burmese-teak