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Friday, June 13, 2008

Burma cyclone impacting world food supply; forced evictions make post-cyclone hell worse

The military officers who have run the Burmese (Myanmar) economy for the past half century has little to show for their efforts. Endowed with vast raw materials and agricultural resources — the latter made Burma in colonial times the world’s No. 1 rice exporter — the economy has fallen to almost subsistence levels.

The effects of Cyclone Nargis in early May have not only added new misery for the country’s 50 million people but have negated rice exports needed by neighboring countries and contributing to the global food crisis. The storm hit hardest in Burma’s main rice-growing region in the isolated Irrawaddy Delta, where some 2 million people were driven from their homes and farmland.

Locals gather in front of a damaged monastery in Laputta, Burma, on June 9, 2008.       AP
Now comes word from human rights organizations that the military is driving displaced villagers from temporary camps set up in the continuing heavy monsoon rains, and is attempting to get them back on their salt water-logged fields to begin the recuperation of the paddy.

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Human rights groups say that forced evictions — involving churches, monasteries, schools and other public buildings — are putting lives at risk and flouting international principles of humanitarian relief. Amnesty International reports 30 cases since May 19 of forcible removals of thousands of people who sought temporary shelter.

The force of the storm was so great that local stocks of food were destroyed. The few foreign refugee workers the regime has permitted to enter have described heart-rending stories of many displaced villagers trying to capture a few grains of rice out of inundated areas filled with decaying human corpses and animal carcasses.

The regime has permitted only minimal outside aid. And much of that, apparently, has been diverted to the military itself. Four American naval vessels that happened to be in the region on exercises when the storm struck waited for several weeks before gaining permission to enter the Delta area with small boats carrying water, emergency food and emergency items. The generals apparently fear exposure to foreign aid would strengthen opposition forces and their leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of a founding father of the post-colonial nation and political prisoner for more than a decade.

Humanitarian organizations, including the UN World Food Program, were operating in Burma before the cyclone struck, providing food aid to half a million people in the country where one in three children are chronically malnourished. The fear now is that the damage to the area known as the country's "rice bowl" will make a bad situation a lot worse.

Burma’s plight is already impacting world food supplies. The World Food program said that it was not yet known whether Burma would be able to meet its commitments to supply Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. If Burmese exports disappear — as now seems possible — the domino effect on Asia neighbors would be fierce. The International Rice Research Institute warned that, with the year’s second harvest imminent, weather patterns in Asia would come under unprecedented scrutiny: the freak damage caused by the cyclone will now exacerbate that.

The price of rice had already trebled across Asia this year, hitting a record $25.07 per 100 pounds on April 24. Some local market prices have risen tenfold in the past year. Several governments — including those of China and India — responded by imposing export bans. Rice is currently trading around $20.96 per 100 pounds.

If the worst conditions prevail, Burma, with a rickety food economy and impoverished population, could become a net importer of rice.

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