From Tue Jan 11 07:15:27 2000
Date: Mon, 10 Jan 2000 22:52:13 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <>
Subject: RIGHTS-BURMA: Bullets Instead of Bread
Article: 86417
To: undisclosed-recipients:;

Bullets Instead of Bread

By Teena Amrit Gill, IPS, 6 January 2000

BANGKOK, Jan 6 (IPS)—When Burma won independence from the British more than 50 years ago, it was one of Asia's largest producer and exporter of rice.

But as a new century dawns the country and after four decades of misrule by successive military juntas, has gone from being the rice bowl of Asia into the basket case of the region.

How this happened is explained in a new report on the food situation in Burma which reveals the true extent of food scarcity and hunger across the country, and the role of the ruling military junta in actively perpetuating this.

According to the report, issued late last year by the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong together with Burma Issues, a human rights organisation based in Bangkok, the nexus between militarisation and food scarcity in Burma is unmistakable.

“Burma's military government has incorporated denial of food into the policies, structure and routine operations of state,” says the report, which is based on the findings of a “People's Tribunal” on the subject.

Burma has one of the worst human development records in Asia.

According to the World Bank's 1999 report entitled ‘Myanmar: An Economic and Social Assessment’, “life expectancy at birth in Myanmar (Burma) is 60 compared with an average in East Asia of 68; infant mortality is 79 per thousand births, compared with the East Asia average of 34; child malnutrition rates are very high and represent the 'silent emergency’ in Myanmar.”

According to the World Bank report, wasting affects 30 percent of children under age 10, “reflecting long term deprivation”.

The two major causes of food scarcity found by the People's Tribunal were the junta's paddy or rice procurement policies and its public works projects which enforce compulsory, uncompensated labour.

According to the tribunal, systematic counter-insurgency measures in zones of conflict have also impoverished the population.

The Burmese military has been waging war against ethnic groups, such as the Karen and Karennis demanding independence and unwilling to come under Rangoon's control.

The destruction of crops, displacement of civilians and relocation of villages, in addition to arbitary taxation and forced labour, has ensured the systematic destruction of local people's food security, the tribunal argues.

“The aim of the reportis to raise certain issues not usually talked about in international debates and discussions on Burma and to highlight the real concerns of the majority of Burma's people,” says Chris Cusano from Burma Issues, who worked on the tribunal.

Held in Thailand earlier last year, the tribunal, “a public exercise in discovering and assessing evidence of human rights abuse”, aims to reveal through 26 testimonies the plight of ordinary people in Burma - subsistence farmers, fisherfolk, landless workers, teachers, civil servants, students and researchers. Testimonies were given to the tribunal from at least eight different ethnic groups.

Burma, with a population of 48 million, is one of the most ethnically diverse nations in the world. It has more than a dozen major ethnic groups and more than 100 different languages and dialects.

The tribunal's findings were submitted to a panel of three well- known figures in the Asian human rights movement. These are Justice H Suresh from the Bombay High Court active in environmental issues, Professor Mark Tamthai, director of the Centre for Philosophy and Public Policy at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, and Dr Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy.

While the Tribunal found that food scarcity and hunger exist across the country, the differences were stark between in the situation in areas with armed conflict and those without conflict. . . The Burmese armed forces or Tatmadaw's ‘Four Cuts' strategy in civil war zones aims to deny local populations, both civilian and combatants, food, money, communication and recruits in order to crush their rebellion.

“We pay to work our own plantations,” says Naw Ble, a subsistence farmer in Dawei township in Burma's south-west Tenasserim Division, a contested area. “We serve them without wages. Our paddy is looted, then we buy back rice to survive. Our fruit and crops are taken, our animals and plants are taken, we are unable to escape,” she recounts.

Forced relocation in areas not entirely controlled by the government is common and former village sites are declared “free-fire” zones where soldiers are allowed to shoot anyone on sight. Both measures ensure that people must move from their agricultural lands and face death if they dare to return.

Forced labour in turn does not allow local people enough time to work for themselves, and on their fields. The confiscation of rice and its poor delivery in the form of rations back to people excacerbates their food insecurity.

In non-civil war zones, the junta's paddy procurement policy pushes farmers to buy rice at higher prices. This policy involves the compulsory purchase from farmers of a percentage of the produce of all paddy fields, usually at prices far lower than the market price.

Rural poverty and agriculture are closely linked in Burma. For more than half of poor rural households, agricultural production is the primary economic activity. According to a government-determined poverty line, about one quarter of the population of Burma lives below minimal subsistence levels.

The most damning conclusion of the tribunal report is that for a military that claims to “protect the interests of the people”, the ruling junta through its various policies has consistently “put military interests above food security”.

Not only has the paddy quota been implemented through coercive military force, but the policy is aimed at supplying military personnel and civil servants with cheap rice, in addition to exporting rice for desperately needed foreign exchange.

Burma has one of the largest armies in the world and recruiting, feeding and equipping it is one of its prime concerns. In 1995-96 the army doubled in size from the 1989-90 period to 350,000. From 1993 to 1996, defence constituted about 40 percent of government spending.

Published government budget figures show that per capita spending on the military is nine times that of health services and twice that of education services, and these trends have been worsening.

“There is often a problem with credibility with reports on Burma,” says Steve Thompson, an activist working on Burma-related issues in northern Thailand.

“But the depth of research and the legal framework this tribunal has used to make its findings are very important in challenging the ruling regime. And till the people of Burma stop living as a slave population. this must be done,” he adds.