September 26, 2008

Chin: Burma Ignores Famine

Active ImageIn Burma’s north-west Chin state, thousands starve as both Burma and the UN WFP say ‘distribution of WFP relief food would be inappropriate’. 
Below is an article published by BBC News:
 
In Burma's north-west Chin state, thousands of people say they are starving. The Mara tribe say hundreds of their community have died in the past two months alone.
 
Local human rights groups say of an estimated 500,000 population, 100,000 people are at crisis point.
They blame a natural phenomenon, which occurs every 50 years in the region - a plague of rats.
 
The last time it happened - in the late 1950s - an estimated 15,000 people died from famine.
 
Across the border, India has implemented emergency measures to deal with the threat, but Burma's military government has been silent on the matter.
 
The United Nations World Food Programme has conducted an assessment in the region.
 
In an email earlier this year [2008] to a Burmese non-governmental organisation, the WFP's country director for Burma, Chris Kaye, concluded that "people are not dying of starvation" and that the "distribution of WFP relief food would be inappropriate".
 
It is a response which inspired over 50 people from the Mara tribe to walk for days through thick, mountainous jungle to meet me at a secret location on the India-Burma borderlands.
 
They say that the WFP's assessment did not include southern Chin where they live and that if the international community fails to take them into account, their tribe may not survive.
 
They all tell the same story of how, when the bamboo flowers, it causes a plague of rats.
 
When the rats have finished gorging on the bamboo fruits, they go on to devour farm crops, which provide the main form of income for the Mara people.
 
"You can track the movement of the rats," one man said. "Overnight the whole mountain range can be destroyed."
 
Another told me how he had tried to fend off the rats by building rat traps all around his field of maize.
 
"More than 100, but it's meaningless, I cannot protect the farm," he said.
 
The nearest hospital is miles away through mountainous jungle. All the villagers I met were painfully thin.
 
Dr Sasa is a local from southern Chin state and a medical student in his final year of studies in Armenia.
 
Before the food shortages took hold, villagers gave their livestock to pay for his training so that he could return and be their doctor.
 
He was not due back until he finished his studies but when he heard the WFP had dismissed claims of a famine, he set up mobile clinics in the borderlands.
 
In the two months he has been back in the region, he says he has delivered dozens of dead babies and seen over 200 people starve to death.
 
"Many of them die of malnutrition," he says.
 
"Our whole body needs to be filled with food, which builds our immunity against disease. When you are malnourished, disease comes to you and you have no ability to resist."
 
Dr Sasa and the villagers all say that the WFP's assessment did not include them.
 
That view is shared by the chief minister of Mizoram state in neighbouring India, Pu Zoramthanga. Mizoram is also affected by the bamboo flowering.
 
"Those visitors went to the accessible areas. There will be no famine there," says the minister. "If they had visited the area near the border with Mizoram, certainly people are suffering. They have to go back and see."
 
He says if protective measures had been put in place by the Burmese government, the famine would not be happening now.
 
"The government of India sent a good amount of money for advance preparation to combat this - to make storage of rice and instead let us grow cash crops like ginger and turmeric, which the rats won't eat," the minister adds.
 
"With this we combat the bamboo flowering and famine."
 
The villagers I have met all tell me that the Burmese government is doing nothing to help. If anything, they say, the government is making the situation worse.
 
They say that the military - which has increased its presence in Chin state - taxes them, takes their possessions including their livestock, and forces them to work without pay as labourers or porters.
 
One pastor told me he advised his parishioners to do whatever the military asked of them.
 
"We ask God to endure this suffering," he says.
 
When I asked him how it would help, he referred to the Bible.
 
"If someone slaps you on the cheek, turn the other, we taught like that. Is this right? I don't know," he asks.