Category Archives: economy

Food aid cut as crops fail in Irrawaddy delta

Sea-level farmlands like these have not recovered from Cyclone Nargis

A week ago the United Nations humanitarian news agency ran a telling interview with a survivor of Cyclone Nargis, the storm that devastated Burma in May.

The interviewee, a 62-year-old farmer whose daughter-in-law and granddaughter were killed in the cyclone, said that although after the disaster some monks gave her paddy seed with which to replant her fields, the crop has failed.

“Even with fertilizer, the plants simply didn’t take or died,” Aye Yin told a reporter from the IRIN news service. “Some say it’s because of the salt water that inundated much of our fields. I don’t know. In any case, it doesn’t matter now.”

To get a little income, her grandson now collects empty water bottles from the streets and sells them to recyclers. The family has also received some assistance from the World Food Programme, but Aye Yin says that it isn’t enough.

“Now all we worry about is how we will survive the coming months,” she said. “I pray we won’t starve to death.”

She is going to have to pray harder. In November, the WFP is set to scale back its work in Burma’s delta, from general to “targeted” distributing of rice. Continue reading

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What next for human rights abuse in Burma?

Burma’s military government has by now dramatically compounded the death and misery brought to its country with Cyclone Nargis. While carrying on with the same sort of games it has played against the global community for years, it has caused untold needless loss of life and greatly magnified people’s suffering today and tomorrow.

The regime has failed to open the door to sufficient foreign aid for the millions who need help. Its agents, whether under orders or of their own accord, have also obstructed local and overseas efforts to deliver relief and have misdirected their energies at futile exercises like the holding of the May 10 constitutional referendum and the arrests of state officers accused of not staying at their posts throughout the havoc of that day.

The authorities have been scrambling to get back on top and at least give the appearance of being in control. Once they’ve obtained a semblance of normalcy and official behavior becomes a little more coherent, human rights abuses directed against storm refugees and people in nearby areas especially will increase. Continue reading

Steal big, steal little

(Latest roundup of some Burmese language news reports on Cyclone Nargis)

(ลักเล็ก ขโมยใหญ่)

International groups in Burma are reportedly acknowledging that the army is “diverting” or “pilfering” aid (euphemisms for thieving) to Cyclone Nargis victims but are declining to give details for fear that they will be locked out completely.

Much of the concern is rightly with the army stealing big at the top end of the chain. But there will be theft at every level and among all agencies. An article by Yoma 3 has an example of stealing little in Kyimyindaing, just across the river from Rangoon, where village council officials are allegedly taking relief supplies being sent for homeless villagers. According to one,

“On the 14th, there was donating through the Red Cross for refugees at Dalechaung village. When the donors were present, there were 17 mosquito nets, yet when given by raffle to the villagers there were only 10. Where’d the other seven go? When the villagers investigated they found that the three-village chairman U Kyaw Soe took two, and fire brigade chief Aung Min, Tin Oo of USDA, then fireman Sein Hlaing took one each. The other [two] couldn’t be located.”

According to the villager, U Kyaw Soe is refusing to allow aid to be distributed to the villagers from outside without his involvement. A donor told Yoma 3 that 44 houses in Dalechaung were washed away as the river rose during the storm. The others are without rooves and the villagers are staying in an old rice warehouse but have been told that they will be thrown out. Maybe they have to go and vote.

To be sure, under the circumstances this is a very small theft, and the families of the officials may themselves be in need, but as this sort of behaviour will be repeated everywhere, the question for international aid groups is, if 10 out of 17 items delivered to the local level (from an unknown number originally) reach the people who really need them, is that enough? Continue reading

Pointless plants, needless burden

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Around the suburbs of Rangoon small scraggly bushes now occupy plots of land that once were used for growing vegetables or beans. They look miserable. Unattended among weeds and debris, they show no signs of growth and bear few leaves. Some are used for hanging laundry. Others catch plastic bags in the breeze.

They are also a flagship state project. The order to grow these physic nut plants, which belong to the same family as castor oil, is said to have come directly from Burma’s military supremo, Senior General Than Shwe. His supposed idea is to alleviate the country’s fuel shortages through biodiesel, although some speculate that the order may have had as much to do with astrology as the economy.

People all around the country have been given seeds and pressed into planting them [or, the Myanmar Times suggests, “at the government’s request”] along roads, football fields, schoolyards and government compounds. Some bear the signboards of government departments, police stations and military units. Television broadcasts reassure viewers that the bushes will soon bear a great bounty, and demonstrate how simple it is to extract their oil and use it for fuel.

Reality suggests otherwise. Continue reading

Rocky roads

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The latest report of a United Nations independent expert has rightly inferred that the deepening poverty of millions is the most endemic human rights abuse in Burma today.

The report, by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, notes that even government figures reveal that citizens spend around 73 percent of their disposable incomes on food alone, while international agencies estimate that one child in three aged under five is malnourished.

The preponderant cause of this misery is the government itself. Pinheiro observes that, for instance, the confiscating of land is often followed by new big projects which in turn bring more suffering. He points to seven new hydroelectric schemes in the north that have been accompanied by military demands for labor, money and goods from people living in their vicinity, to say nothing of the environmental damage caused.

All of this is very far removed from the unceasing images in state-run media of generals standing resolutely above new dams, cutting ribbons at the entrances of schools, and strolling over carpets of petals strewn by maidens across big bridges. In their world, national development is measured in terms of cubic meters of concrete poured and machines itemized. What can be seen to have been done is what matters.

The propaganda is striking because it is in these fields that the regime is failing spectacularly. The new bridges span rivers which are reached by roads of such poor condition that hire vehicles refuse to travel them. Schools have classrooms and chairs but lack teachers, and for that matter, students. Power lines run to houses without metering devices, and the dams anyhow are not supplying those with them: households boil rice with charcoal because constant outages mean that an electric cooker switched on for dinner may not be ready until breakfast.

Moreover, as Burma’s people have been forced to continue treading rocky roads, so too has the U.N.’s expert. Continue reading

The haves and have-nothings

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Within the last decade, the cost of a bus trip across Rangoon, a cup of tea, or a bottle of peanut oil has risen tenfold. One sack of the lowest quality rice in Burma today sells for around US$12: half a month’s wages for a construction worker; an unimaginable amount for the children picking over rubbish heaps in search of a cabbage leaf or some discarded grains.

Persistent acute increases in the cost of living across Burma have been spurred on by the rise in fuel prices of last August, which precipitated nationwide protests the following month.

But while the spreading poverty has been documented and raised by international groups, the contrasting displays of extravagant riches by its small elite have attracted less attention abroad. In the country, they are increasingly hard to ignore. Continue reading

Rice & rationality

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Note: This comment appeared in Jurist on November 7

The renewal of small protests in Burma during recent days should come as no surprise to anyone other than those persons who have written foolish articles making out that what happened in September was somehow not the doing of the people there themselves but rather a consequence of covert American foreign policy.

Every society has its threshold, the point after which it will no longer tolerate things going on as before. The threshold for people in Burma is much higher than that of many other societies today, and thus they have put up with a lot more for a lot longer than might otherwise have been expected. This does not mean that they have not fought back, but rather that their forms of resistance have not attracted much outside interest, nor seriously threatened the army’s hold on power. Rather, many have served to keep the country back from the threshold for so long.

But it is no longer possible for people there to use ordinary methods of defiance to alleviate their problems. The conditions under which they are being forced to live have become intolerable. The protests are a consequence of the threshold being reached, not engineering from the outside. The struggle that is on now in Burma is ultimately a struggle for survival.

Continue reading