Hunger still rampant in Burma

Burma is a fertile country with abundant resources. In years gone by it was said that nobody ever starves in Burma. This has long ceased to be the case. Evidence suggests that every day millions of people there go hungry, hundreds of thousands are seriously malnourished, and that some are indeed starving. This May, with the launch of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on the Right to Food and the Rule of Law in Asia, attention has again been brought to the role of the military government in Burma in denying people the right to food. Extensive research by the secretariat of the new Tribunal suggests that conditions there have not improved since the report of the earlier People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma (Voice of the Hungry Nation, October 1999).

In 2003, a villager in the east of Burma displaced by army operations feels both hunger and the absurdity of going hungry in this land of plenty. Speaking with embarrassment, he tells a researcher, “We can’t even feed our own children. I don’t like to say such things… I’m a man, but I can’t even feed my children.” An historian in the capital suggests that religious ritual won’t bring economic and social prosperity, and is promptly blacklisted by the authorities. A farmer in another region failing to supply sufficient rice to the authorities is hospitalized after being tortured by the police.

That police can torture a farmer as punishment for a poor crop speaks to how utterly perverted ‘law enforcement’ becomes in the hands of an authoritarian government. It also points to the universality of rights. In Burma, where every state directive is aimed ultimately at ensuring the supremacy of the armed forces, food is denied through state-managed violence. Torture is used to obtain rice. Fear is instilled to deprive people of basic economic rights and retard their capacity to react. Denial of the right to food is the corollary of the non-rule of law. The fight against the torture of a farmer, the silencing of an historian and the dislocation of a villager is concomitant with the fight to create and maintain the space necessary to struggle for adequate food.

In October 2000, the government of Burma established a human rights committee chaired by the Minister for Home Affairs, Colonel Tin Hlaing. The committee hasn’t been heard of much since, despite its ample sub-committees, training programmes conducted by foreign ‘experts’, and occasional workshops. The Asian Human Rights Commission would be interested to know the position of the committee on the massive violations of economic and social rights in Burma. It would like to ask its chairman what he isdoing. Two and a half years of silence are long enough: the credibility of any human rights committee, and its partners, rests on practical monitoring, reporting and preventing of human rights abuse, not least of all, violations of the right to food. So again, what is the committee doing? The people of Burma need to eat today.


This statement of 9 May 2003 was issued to coincide with the launch of the Permanent People’s Tribunal on the Right to Food and the Rule of Law in Asia.