A Myanmese famine spreads unchecked

PUBLISHED : Monday, 15 September, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 15 September, 2008, 12:00am

The spectre of famine is looming over Myanmar's Chin state. Early this year, a rare species of bamboo that flowers roughly every half-century produced a bumper harvest of fruit and seed, which was eaten mainly by rats. For several months now, a superbreed of huge rodents has descended on towns and villages to devour crops and provisions intended for human consumption. Already, the plague has taken many people to the brink of starvation and left the entire state in desperate need of food aid.

Mautam, as the cyclical bamboo flowering is called by local people, is not unique to western Myanmar, where Chin state is located.

Indeed, the current devastation started across the border in northeastern India, in 2006, spread to Bangladesh in January this year and only moved inside Myanmar in March. Since then, however, its impact on the Chin people has been catastrophic.

Chin state is a small and inaccessible part of a closed country. Its mainly Christian population of half a million lives off the land in hill rice farms surrounded by bamboo forest. Transport links even with towns and cities in Myanmar are poor, and contact with the outside world is slight. Throughout Myanmar's long years of entrenched military government, the Chin National Front has kept up a low-grade insurgency.

News of a developing famine first reached the outside world in June. Lengthy analyses were then issued by the Chin Human Rights Organisation in July, and by the Project Maje information group last month. In response, some emergency food aid was delivered by the World Food Programme and the United Nations Development Programme.

Nevertheless, messages sent through church networks indicate that hunger remains pervasive. Many people pawn or sell possessions to buy food. Some borrow from moneylenders at exorbitant interest rates. Others dig for wild root crops in the forest. Gradually, Chin society is falling apart as residents abandon villages, schools close and crime rises.

Myanmar already has one major humanitarian crisis on its hands. Cyclone Nargis swept the south of the country at the start of May, and around 140,000 people either perished in the storm or are missing, presumed dead. However, while rescue and rehabilitation services are stretched, assistance is being delivered to affected areas by ordinary people, government officials and aid agencies.

By contrast, the famine spreading across Chin state is largely unaddressed. People are not driving cars laden with food into the Chin hills. To do so would require a return journey of many days from Yangon or Mandalay.

The government is not redirecting services to the disaster zone. It has already diverted as much as it can to Nargis relief. Aid agencies are not present on the ground. They find it almost impossible to access the area. Direct assistance to the Chin people is therefore urgently needed.

Professor Ian Holliday is dean of social sciences at the University of Hong Kong