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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2902

Burma heading toward a new civil strife due to fall in rice production

By Zin Linn

As information reveals of permanent damage to rice production in Burma, international aid agencies expressed their concerns that that there could be shortages of food in the cyclone-hit country in the years to come.

On the contrary, Burma has enough rice to feed its people, National Planning Minister Soe Tha of the ruling junta said on 10 June, 2008, accusing foreign aid agencies of miscalculating the devastation in the Irrawaddy delta or Burma’s rice bowl.

In remarks reported by official media, National Planning Minister Soe Tha rejected warnings that Burma's food security could be "jeopardized" if delta farmers cannot plant a new rice crop by the end of July.

"Some organizations were spreading groundless information such as there is or will be a shortage of rice in the country," Soe Tha was quoted as saying at a meeting with international relief agencies on last Tuesday. The rice output in the storm-affected areas in Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon divisions made up only 2.3 per cent of the nation’s total rice output. The uncultivable acreage is barely 1 per cent of that of the whole nation, he said.

"We have enough rice and we can distribute sufficiently," he said, although the newspaper reports did not give a detailed picture of the country's rice production.

But, ground situation was different from what Soe Tha had said. The five regions struck by cyclone Nargis are mainly agriculture zones producing more than 50 percent of the country's rice. The cyclone has left paddy-fields filled with sea water and destroyed rice mills and storages as well as the salt and fishing industries. Farmers lost everything they possessed including rice hoarded for family consumption, seed grains needed for sowing in this season, as well as their draught-animals.

The Food and Agriculture Organization has said that more than 20 percent of paddy crops in the cyclone-hit area were destroyed. Reservoirs and irrigation systems, roads and bridges which helped producing rice crops have all been razed.

International agencies have time and again been warning that time is running out fast and if delivering of seeds paddy failed to accomplish in last week of July, planting will not come about in time for harvesting this season and Burma will be subjected to the risk of food shortage if the agriculture system is not put back.

On 4 June 2008, at press conference in Bangkok, the U.N. Food and Agricultural Agency said of the 1.3 million hectare (3.2 million acres) of paddy fields or 60 percent of the total area involved with the production of paddy in the cyclone-hit areas, was affected by the storm.

According to Mr. Hiroyuki Konuma, FAO’s Deputy Regional Representative, most of the cyclone-affected paddy fields were in the Irrawaddy delta and Rangoon divisions in estimation of 770,000 hectare. Although the flooded sea-water had been receded, approximately 200,000 hectare was seriously damaged and would not be available for planting in this season. There are more than a million hectare that can be cultivated for rice but it may not be certain of getting manpower, draught-animals or power tillers and agricultural inputs such as seeds-paddy, fertilizers and hand-tools within the seasonal time.

Furthermore, in a meeting in Yangon with Major General Htay Oo, Minister of Agriculture of Myanmar, Noeleen Heyzer, Executive Secretary of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), was told that the country is short of diesel fuel for the tillers. One agricultural tiller will cover 100 acres over 50 working days and requires two gallons of diesel per acre. In brief, the country needs one million gallons of diesel fuel for 5,000 power tillers to help farmers to plant rice in the cyclone-affected Irrawaddy Delta area.

“The window of opportunity is very short, and the need is of the utmost urgency,” Ms. Heyzer said in a statement. “The planting season in the Delta is June to July after which it will be too late, with disastrous consequences for food security in Myanmar and the region.”

But at the same time, on 12 June 2008, the editorial of the junta’s mouthpiece New Light of Myanmar says that the government is undertaking rehabilitation tasks in the storm-ravaged areas and it is also systematically planning preparedness in the event of natural disasters and programmes for improvement of socioeconomic life of local people.

The editorial also said - “Damaged schools in the townships in the storm-hit areas are being rebuilt with the assistance of the companies. Moreover, reconstruction tasks including transport, health, communications and electric power are being implemented with the cooperation of the respective companies. The government, national entrepreneurs and organizations provide farmers with power-tillers, fertilizers, paddy strains and fuel in the storm-hit areas. This will be of much help in the timely cultivation of paddy.”

The editorial did not mention that the tillers were donated by Thailand, China and other countries to help farmers through the current growing season, following the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis. The U.N. estimated Cyclone Nargis affected 2.4 million people and warned more than 1 million of them, mostly in the delta, still need help. The junta has been harshly criticized by foreign governments and aid agencies for its lack of ability in managing the catastrophe. It also has been blamed for forcing survivors from camps and dumping them in their shattered villages.

In one news report from AP, junta detained 18 women and children on 10 June as they walked to the U.N. offices in Rangoon complaining about unfair relief assistance, according to a government official who refused to be identified for fear of retaliation. Victims who complained were from Dagon Township on the outskirts of Rangoon, and they were put into a waiting police van.

Amanda Pitt, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), told journalists on 11 June in Bangkok that humanitarian agencies are concerned that there could be shortages of food relief, shelter and other supplies in the coming weeks unless more money is provided. “Of course the overall concern is to continue to try to get systematic assistance to those most in need and particularly to those most vulnerable to disease, malnutrition and exposure,” she said.

Anyhow, people of Burma have convinced that the cyclone-ravaged delta, which normally accounts for about 65 percent of the country’s rice yield, could cause food problems for the foreseeable future.

Rice prices in Burma’s markets have already soared. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization have warned that Burma may not meet its guarantee to export about 600,000 tons of rice in 2008.

As the military top brasses are only concentrating to grab on power, the death of million people may not be a serious problem for them. People start thinking that the UN and any other international organization cannot afford helping them. Thus, they also begin to suspect with the way of non-violence mean in order to gain freedom. It may be an omen of accelerating arm-struggle or any other violent means.

If so, who will be the most responsible for allowing a new civil strife in the region?

- Asian Tribune -

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