“I can’t even feed my children”: More voices of the hungry nation

Elizabeth Lee, Researcher,
Asian Legal Resource Centre

In 1999, the People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma published Voice of the Hungry Nation, a report that established the nexus between denial of food and military rule in Burma. The government of Burma declined to respond officially to the Tribunal’s findings, although it rebutted suggestions of food shortages in Burma through the state media and international forums. The three years since the Tribunal completed its work would have been ample time for a government with goodwill and the genuine interests of its people at heart to redress violations of the right to food. However, the government in Burma has not responded favourably. Although it claims to uphold the right to food, conditions in the country have not improved. Some reports suggest that they have deteriorated considerably. The primary reason for this unfortunate condition now, as at the time of the Tribunal report, is the role of the armed forces.

What follows is a general overview of how millions of people in Burma continue to be denied the right to food. [1] It begins with how people throughout the country continue to struggle from day to day for enough food to eat. It then reviews the agricultural policies of the state, including the paddy quota system and plans for its cessation, and the dry season crop programme. It moves on to the litany of abuses attributed to the armed forces that impact directly and indirectly on people’s ability to earn a livelihood and to eat, particularly land confiscation, extortion and arbitrary taxation. It pays special attention to conditions for internally displaced persons and refugees, before assessing the current state of militarization in the country, and its relationship to law. Finally, it turns to prospects for the future.

The search for rice 

Rice is the staple food of people in Burma. Everyone lives off it, and millions earn their living from it. From the middle of 2002, however, reports of a domestic rice shortage began to appear.

Poor weather conditions had damaged the rainy season crop. Despite problems, the government forged ahead with exports, even raising its target.

It is often said that people in Burma can put up with almost any hardship as long as they still have enough rice. [2] In the last year many people in central Burma have come close to, or reached, this breaking point, as reported by Democratic Voice of Burma radio:

The people in Mergui (Beik), Tenasserim Division are running out of staple rice supply and they have to survive by drinking rice porridge. Rice merchants are hoarding their stocks in other villages and rice vendors are only stocking a small amount of rice in their shops and charging people more than the normal price. The people of some quarters in Mergui have to be content with broken rice soup. [3]

The police have promptly arrested anyone found begging for food. [4] But others have turned to more desperate acts. Groups of villagers in central Burma are said to have held up passing busses, demanding not money but food from the passengers; others are said to have raided rice warehouses. [5] Looting of rice has been widely reported, and it is understood that even officials have been caught stealing rice and cooking oil from government warehouses. [6] One person speaking on radio earlier this year described how desperate some have become:

The other day, I chatted with my neighbors in front of our house while my rice was being cooked in the kitchen. When I returned to the kitchen the rice pot was gone. What could I do? I will tell you what is happening in our area. In other areas, rice pots are often stolen. When we didn’t face the experience, we knew nothing about it. Now that they have done it to us and we didn’t manage to arrest the thief and didn’t know who did it. We all talked about it and laughed. The economic hardships make people work hard but they are not able to eat sufficiently. It’s worse for houses with many children. Children have to collect plastic in the streets and find jobs. It is worse during the school holidays. Children collect anything that they can sell in the streets. [7]

A few simple sums reveal the truth of these remarks. An unskilled labourer can earn 300 to 400 kyat per day. But to feed a small family costs at least 1000 kyat per day. [8] And this cost is rising rapidly, at present more than doubling annually, as the value of the currency plummets. The result is that many families in once relatively prosperous urban areas are now spending around 70 per cent of their household income on food. [9] Other basic commodities have also doubled or tripled in price annually. As observed by one resident of the capital:

The price of eggs is outrageous these days. A single egg fetches 30-40 kyat these days ?not much by international standards, but enough to put them beyond the reach of ordinary Burmese… Only the middle class can afford to eat eggs now. [10]

The resident went on to assert that, “We’re on the brink of starvation”— a remarkable statement coming from a member of the urban middle class.

Public protests are rare in Burma, as they inevitably result in arrests and lengthy jail terms. But at least once in the last year a group of protesters gathered in the capital to decry the cost of living. Shouting, “A fall in prices is the people’s cause!” the group included two nuns. [11] The nuns have not been heard from since. Meanwhile, more people are going hungry.

Reaping in the paddy

The problem is that the government needs the rice just as much as the people. When a conflict arises between these two parties, the government exerts its will by force, and the people suffer as a result. Since 1999, the government has continued to pursue policies of paddy production and acquisition irrespective of the interests of farmers and consumers. Although it has recently announced its intention to scrap the compulsory paddy purchasing system, discussed below, at present this initiative just leads to more questions.

The government needs to feed the army and provide subsidized rice and other basic goods to the civil service and army families. These provisions are a major incentive for persons becoming soldiers, teachers and government clerks. The government also wants to export more rice. To achieve these ends, it has insisted that farmers do multiple cropping, and sell a proportion of their paddy to state agents at prices usually around one third the market rate, but sometimes less. These policies together have continued to have a serious impact on food availability in the country.

Once power for implementing policy under an autocratic regime is invested in the hands of local officials, it is further distorted. Take the following demands, which village authorities accompanied by police made on farmers in one area during 2001:

1. For each basket of paddy that is discolored because of unfavorable weather conditions, the cultivator can either accept a deduction of 150 kyat per basket or pay 400 kyat per discolored basket of paddy (the difference between the prescribed selling price of 350 kyat and 750 kyat, the prescribed cash payment for failure to supply).

2. For the purchase of a common winnowing machine in some villages, cultivators are asked to pay an amount of money at the rate of the price of a basket of paddy while in other villages the price is fixed at the rate of 200 kyat per acre.

3. One pyi of paddy per acre is the fixed amount that has to be given free for the township [Peace and Development Council]. [12]

4. Compulsory purchase of one videotape, cassette tape and calendar by every cultivator who arrives at the Paddy Purchasing Center to sell his prescribed paddy.

5. Compulsory purchase of insecticides for which deductions are made from the amounts due to the cultivators. [13]

Such maltreatment of farmers has been widely reported. Other ways in which local authorities extract cash and kind from farmers have included:

  • Arbitrary surcharges on agricultural bank loans;
  • Charges for summer crop irrigation works;
  • Provision of subsidized fuel for irrigation pumps only after ad-vance payments;
  • Increasing the required weight per basket; and,
  • Overcharging for fertilizer and other basic inputs.

Police or soldiers are also understood to have been accompanying local officials more and more often when making their rounds. Farmers unable to fulfill obligations are sometimes arrested on the spot and released only after they have purchased the amount of paddy owed on the open market, at a cost far in excess of the amount they are repaid by the state. In one recent example,

Farmer Naing War was accused of failing to sell the allotted 168 tins of rice to the government. He was taken to Nyaungpin Seik Police Station and beaten up by station administrator, Maung Soe… The farmer was beaten and kicked the whole night by the police and he had to be treated in Moulmein Hospital the next day. After a week he was discharged from the hospital [but] the wounds and pains… are so severe that he is said to be still suffering. [14]

In more remote regions, where farmers have for years been subjected to the vicissitudes of civil war and social instability, it is normal for soldiers and officials to use threats and beatings to extract quota paddy. In fact, it is presumed that these techniques will be used, and officials seeking to use more tactful approaches must specifically instruct soldiers, in the words of one telegraph, “[ to] not threaten [farmers] with sticks/ guns/ knives, and do not scold [them].” [15] 

Under any circumstances, government officials’ estimates of paddy yield per acre are typically unrealistic, intended to satisfy their superiors rather than reflect reality. As a result, even farmers bringing in a good harvest may be left with little once the government is through with them. This is especially the case in more remote regions, where the land may be less suited to wet paddy cropping and the farmers have fewer resources and even less support from the government than their counterparts in central regions. A report on conditions in northeastern Shan State is illustrative:

On average, one acre of land in northern Shan State could produce, given the right weather conditions, around 30 baskets of rice. For an ordinary farmer to grow an acre of rice, the following expenses, measured in rice, are needed apart from his own labor:

(a) 5 baskets of rice for hiring workers to help in planting rice seedlings
(b) 5 baskets of rice for hiring buffalo
(c) 5 baskets of rice for buying fertilizers
(d) 5 baskets of rice for other expenses

Usually only about 5 baskets of unhusked rice per acre are left for the farmer at the end of the harvest, and if he/ she has to sell another 4 baskets at a giveaway price, only 1 basket would be left for his own consumption, together with very little money from the selling of the 4 baskets. When something goes wrong and the farmer does not have enough rice to sell to the authorities, he would have to buy from others at the market price and resell at their designated price, which is usually many times lower. [16]

Unfortunately, government policies are indifferent to seasonal realities, and are predicated on what has been planned. A natural disaster is no object. In the face of floods seriously disrupting the 2002 rainy season crop, the response of the state media was telling:

There are also fabrications saying that there were floods along the banks of Chindwin and Ayeyawady rivers in upper Myanmar which have destroyed the rice fields in the region; that the amount of rice flowing into Yangon was decreasing; rice prices were rising in Ayeyawady Division. As many countries are facing over flowing of rivers in the current rainy season, Myanmar is also facing floods in some areas. But the floods in Myanmar have never destroyed any rice warehouses or crops fields. Over 30,000 rice bags are entering Yangon every day. The amount is enough for the city consumption. There is no rice price rise in Ayeyawady Division. So it is clear that the rumours are being spread by the greedy merchants to hike the rice prices. [17]

The government of Burma may be in denial, but people in the cities know that rice prices doubled after the floods, and in some rural areas, tripled. Soldiers accompanied purchasing agents to areas where they are not normally required, in order to ensure that the farmers contribute as usual. [18] In other areas, farmers were told that they would not be permitted to sell any paddy on the open market until they had completed their compulsory sales to the state, and paid off debts for fertilizer. [19] One technique often reported to enforce this directive is the shutting down of private mills by troops. In some places this action has been known to result in short term artificial shortages of rice on the open market, causing prices to triple, treble or even quadruple within a single month. [20]

Even non-farmers have been obliged to contribute paddy to the government coffers. In some cases these are people who have been forcibly relocated and then instructed to plant and work rice so that local authorities may extract the quota, or a fine instead. [21] In Arakan State, in the west of the country, authorities faced with a drastic shortfall in their collection are reported to have set about collecting paddy from land owners not actually harvesting rice, including shrimp and fish farmers, orchard and salt pan owners. [22]

A change for the… 

This 24 April 2003, the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper announced plans to abolish the compulsory paddy procurement system. The full announcement came after a change in policy had been alluded to in earlier reports. Secretary-2 of the ruling council, Lt-Gen. Soe Win, explained that

Starting [in the] coming year the government will not buy paddy directly from farmers, and [will instead] adopt a new rice trading policy ensuring free trade of the crop in the interest of the entire peasantry and helping develop the market-oriented economy. [23]

The aims of the new policy have been identified as:

To enable farmers to produce farm goods with might and main supporting the new policy; to enable the consumers to buy rice at reasonable prices with full satisfaction; and to extend export of the surplus rice to earn foreign exchange in accord with the export policy.

The policy shift, while in principle welcomed by many economists and outside observers, suggests more problems than it does solutions.

Firstly, the policy is still directed to the maintenance of military authority over the country, read in the basic principles of the policy as “to maintain the momentum of the rice trading business… in the interest of the State”, and “to support the peace and stability of the State”. The new committee established to oversee the programme is headed by the Secretary-2. Its membership consists of ministers and officials from trading associations.

Secondly, the description of how the new policy will operate is vague, padded with references to numerous committees and subcommittees with various tasks. The leading committee itself will have the ability to “[ issue] permission for the creation of rice trading bodies… to introduce rules and regulations concerning
rice trade, transportation, milling and storage… dissolve the rice trading bodies unsuitable to continue their functions and to reorganize them… [and] coordinate the process if there occurs any inequality in fixing prices.” About the only thing that is clear from all the above is that the government reserves the right to do as it pleases.

Thirdly, the policy brief indicates that new centres for voluntary purchase of paddy are to be established at local administrative levels across the country. In most cases what this is likely to mean is that the old compulsory purchase centres will simply be reopened under new signboards, as to establish an entirely new network of purchasing centres would be impossible and undesirable. Therefore, the officials and offices of the old system will remain intact. It is not likely that those persons and offices will be able to quickly change their manner of operating, nor convince farmers whom they have ordered around for decades that they are now free to do as they like.

Fourthly, the new system places greater emphasis on the role of “national entrepreneurs”. However, as will be discussed further below, there are grave doubts that these persons— many of whom are the recipients of land that has been confiscated from small landholders for little or no compensation— will genuinely contribute to food security in the country. As was demonstrated by the earlier Tribunal, the problem in Burma is not one of food production, and therefore not a question of expanding the size of landholdings, but one of equitable food distribution.

Fifthly, perhaps the single most important question is that without the compulsory purchasing system, under which it obtained rice at bargain prices, how will the state feed its army and make subsidized rice available to its sizeable civil service? The provision of discounted basic goods to civil servants has been a major incentive for the hundreds of thousands of teachers, clerks, nurses and other junior staff whose monthly salaries are no compensation for the time they spend at work. If the government intends to discard or amend the provision system, it could have enormous consequences for the administration of the state. If it intends to retain it, how will it provide these people with discounted rice when it is supposedly intending to purchase it at the market rate? As for the army, a reduction in rations and further emphasis on self-reliance, a principle discussed further below, is likely to have drastic consequences for civilian populations living in heavily militarized areas of the country, where extortion, forced labour and arbitrary taxation by soldiers are already rampant. The policy description is both brief and vague on this critical point:

The rice trading associations will have to resell rice for specified forces to Myanma Agricultural Produce Trading at the same price they have purchased. The Myanmar Rice Trading Leading Committee will fix the amount of rice and places to be sent in time… give constant supervision… lay down guidance to extend summer paddy cultivation, increase per acre yield and to render assistance; and … give supervision to solve the rice trading problems. [24]

This description suggests the possibility of a default compulsory system, as the central committee is to give orders about how much rice is needed, when and where it is to be sent. Faced with such instructions, local authorities will do whatever they must to obtain the required rice. Old habits are hard to break, and under a military regime, all too easy to maintain. One way or another, farmers will continue to be pushed around. Indeed, reports persist that since the state first announced the policy, to date local authorities have continued to demand paddy as in the past. [25] 

Make rice when the sun shines 

The government has continued to pressure farmers to grow dry season paddy crops, even in areas where there is simply not enough rainfall or irrigation to do so, a policy addressed in some detail by the earlier Tribunal. In addition to the impracticalities of growing such crops in many parts of the country, farmers often cannot afford to pay for the limited fertilizer and machinery provided by the government, and must provide labour to build irrigation canals and other infrastructure, instead of spending that time on their farms. Without overpriced chemical fertilizers and other inputs, however, farmers in many places are simply unable to produce enough crops to make their work viable. The result in the east of the country is a continual outflow of persons from the farms in search of work in Thailand and elsewhere. [26] 

In some remote regions farmers have been ordered to grow new strains of dry season paddy for the local military, even before rainy season crops have been completely harvested. [27] They have lost parts of their rainy season crops, and have had to buy the special variety of rice, often unsuited to local conditions, from the authorities. Such forced purchases of new ‘super strains’ of rice and other cash crops appear to be little more than profiteering by local authorities, as reports indicate they rarely perform according to the inflated expectations that farmers have been given. [28] Sometimes orders have been changed after farmers have already begun preparing land as instructed. [29] In Karenni State, a mountainous region where dry season paddy is untenable due to poor ground conditions and rainfall, farmers ordered to grow it in 2001 suffered insult on injury when the limited water available was all directed to a nearby newly built hydro-electric power plant. Farmers in this region report that since 1998 the construction of a number of such power plants has caused repeated crop failures. [30] Where farmers have been unable to plant the dry season crop they have been ‘fined’ per acre by local administrators, or have faced with threats of land confiscation. [31] 

Taking over 

In Burma, threats to confiscate land are all too real. Farmers all over the country have lost their fields for failure to meet the paddy quota, plant a dry season crop or otherwise not follow orders. Land confiscation is often arbitrary, but it also has the backing of law. Land regulations have not been altered since the socialist period, and therefore farmers are technically leaseholders on state property. Notification No. 4/ 78 of 18 September 1978, in particular, stipulates that farmers can lose their land where they fail to meet government requirements for crop production.

Ironically, confiscation and the concomitant food problems faced by farmers and their dependents can also be linked to government policies ostensibly for food security. The Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation speaks of increasing land under cultivation by ‘national entrepreneurs’. [32] What this often means in practice is not that local officials will open up new unpopulated land for agriculture, but rather that they will push small landholders off their farms to make way for big commercial croppers. [33] In some remote regions these policies seem intended to inflame inter-communal conflict, as farmers pushed of their lands are predominantly ethnic minorities who have resided in the area for generations, whereas those favoured to take over are ethnic Burmans from central parts of the country.

Since 1999, the authorities have confiscated land with increasing frequency. The results include severe curtailment of the right to food, and concomitant growth in internal displacement, forced migration and forced labour. However, many of the reported cases of land confiscation suggest that the main perpetrator has been the army itself, taking over land in remote regions for its own use or as part of anti-insurgent activities. In some cases land has been taken without compensation for construction of military bases. [34]Elsewhere, it has been taken for army agricultural projects, or to lease back to local people or ‘national entrepreneurs’ for an easy profit. [35] In some situations, one thing has followed the next: after building a base on confiscated land, army battalions with land in surplus have leased the remainder back to the farmers who had occupied it previously. [36]

Whereas most reports suggest the landholdings confiscated are relatively small, and affecting only a few farmers (although these people sometimes lose everything), in some instances large areas of land have been swallowed up. For instance, reports emerged in early 2003 to indicate that a battalion in eastern Mon State
confiscated over 300 acres of farmland in order to secure an important transport junction between Burma and Thailand. [37] Similar reports have come from the western Arakan State, where army units intent upon expanding their agricultural holdings have instructed the Department of Land Affairs to transfer title deeds
over hundreds of acres into battalion names. [38] Under any circumstances, villagers who lose their land to the army in Burma have no voice, no avenue for recourse or redress. Where villagers have actually gone so far as to pay the army to return their lands they have reportedly lost both money and land. [39]

On the move 

The earlier Tribunal noted that among those with the least to eat in Burma are persons who are ‘internally displaced. ‘ These persons can be found, broadly, under government control in relocation sites, or hiding in the mountains and jungles. An October 2002 report by a Thai-based aid group estimates that in total more than 2500 villages have been destroyed, relocated or abandoned in relocation programmes affecting 633,000 individuals over the last five years in eastern Burma. It estimated that since 1996 over one million people living in the regions that border Thailand have been displaced. [40] In 2002 also, there has been a
marked increase in the frequency of counter-insurgency operations in ethnic minority areas, leading in turn to an increase in the level of internal displacement. [41] 

People are typically ordered to go to designated sites by the army as part of anti-insurgent strategies, or to make way for ‘development’ projects. In these places there is usually little or no water or other resources, nor ways to earn a livelihood. Additionally, people at the sites are constantly preyed upon by troops, and suffer unceasing extortion and demands for labour contributions. They are also readily held accountable for movements of anti-government groups in the vicinity: after clashes, the army in some places comes to relocation sites and demands ‘compensation’ for losses. [42] 

Those who have been relocated within walking distance of their farmlands (sometimes days away) often risk their lives to go back and grow a crop. One person from southern Shan State meeting with a staff member of the Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) this March 2003 remarked that, “When our people leave to their farms they bid their relatives goodbye; we don’t know if they will be coming back or not.” Villagers who obtain approval to travel back to their farms and are issued passes are also not guaranteed safe passage: they may be accused of being insurgents by patrolling units, interrogated and tortured despite holding documents to attest otherwise. [43]

People at some relocation sites receive small amounts of assistance from international organizations working in Burma, however this assistance is meagre and only likely to lead to increased aid-dependency in the future among people who until only a few years ago were self sufficient. The authorities place intense restrictions on access to relocation sites in most places in order to limit the possibility of investigations by outside agencies. [44] 

Villagers residing in areas to where other villagers are relocated also suffer intense difficulties, including extortion and land confiscation such as described above. A special September 2002 report recently received by ALRC indicates that in one village in Tenasserim Division where a relocation centre was established in 1997, over 40 acres of land have since been taken from at least 26 subsistence farmers. Of the 26, nine have themselves been forced into the relocation site, eight have fled to Thailand, eight have fled to elsewhere in Burma and one has died. As for their land holdings, 13 sites now have military outposts, seven are part of the forced relocation centre, and the remainder house two guest houses, one trading post, a clinic and a monastery.

In some regions, the dislocation is massive. Since the end of 1999, for instance, over one quarter of the entire ethnic Wa population ?around 126,000 people ?has been forcibly resettled from near the China border to the Thai border, on the other side of Shan State. Not only have the Wa themselves been upset by this mass migration, but the communities whose areas they were moved into have lost their land and property as a result. [45]Tenasserim Division, the southern tip of Burma, is another part of the country where a large part of the population has been resettled against its will, sometimes with orders to move within only a few days, and irrespective of heavy rains and other inclement weather conditions. [46] However, having been relocated to these sites, thousands of people have found them untenable and have then fled to the mountains— or, where possible, over the border— to eke out a living in the jungle, or languish in a refugee camp.

Only some of the people hiding in the mountains and jungles, however, have come from the relocation centres. Thousands more have come directly from their villages, fleeing a litany of abuses or simply refusing to go to a relocation site. Others have been moving from place to place for years. Hiding in the jungles and
keeping away from the military makes the business of getting enough food to survive a task that consumes every spare minute in the day. One person interviewed in a special report recently received by ALRC describes the life of people in the jungle: “When the army moves to the left, we move to the right.”

Another special report given to ALRC in March this year indicates that between 1 January and 10 February an army offensive in seven townships of northern Karen State dislocated thousands of villagers who were still cultivating their lands. Landmines left behind by the army now make movement extremely precarious, and as a result around 3000 people are starving in the jungles, unable to return to their villages, and equally unable to make their way to Thailand to join the hundreds of thousands of refugees already there. According to one woman interviewed in the jungle by a human rights monitor,

The suffering endured by our people here is very hard. Every village is suffering. The enemy entered our area and tortured us hard, but we couldn’t do anything. We fled to the jungle. Some people have run out of paddy and rice. We run to borrow it from other people. If we can borrow it we can eat, but if we can’t then we don’t eat for two or three days. The [army] people came down and burned all [of] our paddy and rice in our village. We have to suffer hard. We are one of the groups which has had to flee to stay in the jungle. [47]

A few tenacious support groups get small amounts of assistance to people surviving in the jungles. In one report received by ALRC earlier this year, a villager asked about his needs replies, “We need rice… 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.”

People hiding in the jungle live in fear of being uncovered by the army. Where troops encounter such people they invariably shoot on site, and kill with impunity. [48] Under such circumstances, some flee to neighbouring countries as a last resort, but are not always welcomed. ALRC reported on one such case to the UN Commission on Human Rights this year. [49] In that event, during late 2001, 63 persons comprising 15 families— including many children and the elderly— had fled from a forced relocation site into the jungle, but were located by troops and forced to flee again after one of their members was shot. An elderly woman died along the way to the border of Thailand, and many others were seriously ill and chronically malnourished on their arrival. After a short period, however, the local Thai army division sent the group back into Burma.

Like the above group, most displaced people cross the border as a last resort, coming after years of attempting to survive— a point that was made to the earlier Tribunal by Thailand-based rights advocates. In June 2002, a man from Shan State described his flight into Thailand as follows:

We were relocated from our village about three years ago, because we were accused of helping the resistance. For the first year we had permission to go back to our village to plant rice. The following year we could only do it if we gave half our crop to the Burmese [army]. This year the little bit we could harvest was not enough and we were not allowed to go foraging. We couldn’t survive, so we left…. [50]

The difficulty for most people coming into Thailand is that if they encounter the Thai army they must prove that they are “fleeing from fighting” to be allowed to stay. This is a false criterion used to effectively deny entry to any person, or to return them as soon as the fighting is said to have ceased, making it “safe” to go back. Although most people coming to Thailand, then, are taking a risk and facing the prospect of arrest as “illegal immigrants,” one person interviewed in March 2002 summed up the alternatives:

If we stay here, we don’t have any ID card[ s]. If we go back, it is difficult to earn a living there and not starve. So, who wants to go back? We already know what happens there. But here, even if the police catch us, they just ask for money. I think they won’t beat us up or kill us like in Burma. [51]

In October 2002 Refugees International reported on a research trip along the length of the Thai-Burma border that found a continual flow of three to four thousand attempted new arrivals per month, citing food shortages, torture, rape, forced labor, relocation, extortion, and summary executions as reasons for their coming. Many interviewees reportedly said that they only fled to Thailand as a last resort, when they— or someone close to them— were being beaten or raped.

The rise of the armed forces and the ‘un-rule of law’

The previous Tribunal established the nexus between the denial of food and the militarization of state and society. The above reports indicate that the military has continued to embed itself in both the administration of the country and the minds of its people. For one, it is understood that to be successful in Burma, to rise above mere subsistence living, one must have friends and connections in the army. [52] For another thing, the widespread fear of the consequences of opposing the military indicates the extent to which people are resigned to the military’s dominance. People who have suffered under military rule still urge their children to think about government careers that will keep them secure and free from danger. [53]

There is no system of compulsory conscription into Burma’s 350,000-plus strong army, however many methods are used to coerce or encourage new recruits, from simply picking up boys and young men on the street, to offering incentives to village headmen and servicemen who bring in new blood. [54] In addition to those taken into the regular army, villagers are forced to serve in civilian militias. Armed groups across the countrygroups— continue to — many of them ceasefire make demands for recruits in their areas. [55] 

Concomitant to militarization is the lack of an effective legal system. This is what the current UN Special Rapporteur on Myanmar has referred to as the ‘un-rule of law’ in the country. [56] On top of all the abuse heaped on people in Burma is the total lack of effective remedies for wrongs committed against them by the state or its agents. In fact, those who dare to demand justice of some kind are often punished for their impudence.

In civil affairs, ‘justice’ is understood in monetary terms. Police and soldiers have been known to accept healthy bribes from accused persons to drop cases lodged against them, and even help the person move to another part of the country. A report from Tenasserim Division from earlier this year, for instance, describes the hasty convening of a military tribunal in a remote area to hear a manslaughter case— the guilty party was allowed to go free by paying some money to the officials and family of the victim. [57]

The army operates with greatest impunity in remote parts of the country. In fact, the areas where abuses are the greatest are also those where people have the most difficulty in getting enough food. In these places, as seen, the threat and practice of killing, torture, rape and other abuse by the army is ever present. Together, these seriously inhibit civilians’ ability to earn a living. Without such threats and dangers, most villagers in Burma, used to standing on their own feet, would have little difficulty in feeding themselves. Instead, farmers face the prospect of horrific torture simply for doing a day’s work; cattle traders are summarily executed and their livestock taken; and women hawking small goods or searching for vegetables for their families risk gang rape at the hands of soldiers. [58] One man who was tortured by soldiers told interviewers in 2002 that

They treated me like an animal, like a dog. They broke my head until blood streamed out. My jaws, cheeks and ribs were broken— the [army] can do what they like— they can kill and rape. We are weaker than they. [59]

The ‘un-rule of law’ can also be seen in the way the government responded to allegations in 2002 that soldiers had systematically raped large numbers of women in remote areas of Shan State. Responding to the extensively documented allegations, a government statement dismissed them as “too ridiculous”. [60] At the local level, the army took measures to ensure that such allegations would not be heard in the future, calling together village and community leaders, and warning them against reporting human rights abuses to investigators or outsiders. Ironically, in at least one place these warnings went to the point of threats that anyone found to have made complaints against the army would be punished with death or having their tongue cut out. [61]

The future 

Since the People’s Tribunal handed down its report in 1999, although the right to food in Burma has increasingly received international attention, people there continue to go hungry. Many are malnourished, and a few, starving. Whatever the case, these conditions, as noted by the Tribunal in 1999, are not ‘natural’. As illustrated in this brief overview, they are the product of a range of actions— and inaction— by the government and armed forces of Burma. Every effort should be made to counter hunger due to natural disaster or other causes outside of human control. Hunger due to the actions of other humans, however, is by its very nature something preventable and immediately stoppable.

The situation in Burma should not be allowed to deteriorate until international organizations are obliged to intervene with convoys of rice, while— absurdly— the same foodstuff continues to be exported or hoarded for military consumption. One group of people providing temporary relief with attempts to offset the systemic actions of another will not ensure the fundamental right to food. The people of Burma do not need a hand out, or for that matter, a leg up. What they need is the army off their back. Instead of seeking to protect its own existence, the government of Myanmar must take active measures to ensure that the right to food is no longer denied.


End Notes 

1 This is the edited text of a longer article available on the Tribunal website, [http://www.foodjustice.net/ ] ,under ‘updates’. In addition to the topics discussed in this paper, that item pays attention to other human rights concerns in Burma and how they impact on food security,
including forced labour and restrictions on trade and travel. For a comprehensive overview of food and agriculture policy in Burma under military rule, readers are advised to see the report of the earlier Tribunal, available online at [http://www.foodjustice.net/burma/1996-2000tribunal ].

2 ‘Burmese near end of tether as rice supply shrinks and prices rocket’, Financial Times, 24 October 2002.

3 ‘No rice, no mercy’, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), 29 October 2002.

4 ‘Rice problem again’, DVB, 29 October 2002.

5 Naw Seng, ‘Farmers feel the pinch’, Irrawaddy, 11 December 2002. News archives of The Irrawaddy are online at [http://www.irrawaddy.org/news/archive.html].

6 Naw Seng, ‘Rice pilfering authorities arrested’, Irrawaddy, 7 October 2002.

7 ‘Theft of rice pots in Moulmein’, DVB, 22 March 2003.

8 ‘Farmers in trouble in Meikhtila District’, DVB, 19 March 2003.

9 ‘Burmese near end of tether as rice supply shrinks and prices rocket’.

10 ‘Generals ignore simmering social unrest’, Irrawaddy, 2 September 2002.

11 ‘Nuns arrested in protest’, Irrawaddy, 16 January 2003.

12 One pyi is 0.56 imperial gallons, or 0.26 litres.

13 ‘Farmers forced to sell rice in Tamu, Sagaing Division’, DVB, 14 January 2003.

14 ‘Farmer tortured in Mon State’, DVB, 28 March 2003.

15 ‘SPDC army orders to villages in Kyar Inn Seik Gyi Township, Karen State’, Federation of Trade Unions— Burma (FTUB), 15 March 2003.

16 ‘Monthly report’, Shan Human Rights Foundation (SHRF), June 2001.

17 ‘A regular press meet was held’, New Light of Myanmar, 4 September 2002.

18 ‘Farmers forced to sell rice in Rangoon Division’, DVB, 5 January 2003.

19 ‘Monthly human rights situation report, Tenasserim Division’, Mergui-Tavoy District Information Department (MTDID), November 2002 & January 2003.

20 ‘Rice price shot up as junta closes down private rice mills’, Narinjara, 19 February 2003. 54
article 2 ?April 2003 Vol. 2, No. 2 53

21 MTDID, January 2003.

22 ‘Rice collection from non-cultivators of rice: Burmese junta’s new tricks to squeeze people dry’, Narinjara, 6 February 2003.

23 ‘State ends direct purchase of paddy, adopts new rice trading policy ensuring free trade starting coming year’, New Light Of Myanmar, 24 April 2003.

24 ‘Need to launch new policy with patriotism for its success’, New Light Of Myanmar, 24 April 2003.

25 ‘Farmers in Pegu Division continue to have to give quota paddy’, Mizzima, 10 April 2003. ‘People still yoked to rice procurement policy’, SHAN, 30 April 2003.

26 ‘Burma human rights yearbook 2002’, National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), 2002.

27 ‘Monthly report’, SHRF, January 2003.

28 NCGUB, 2002.

29 ‘Monthly report’, SHRF, March 2003.

30 ‘Displacement in the Karenni context: Part 2’, Burma Issues, January 2001.

31 NCGUB, 2002.

32 ‘Rural population and farm families’, Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, Government of the Union of Myanmar, 24 December 2003.

33 ‘Military government plans to increase area of land under cultivation’, Kwe Kalu, 31 January 2003.

34 NCGUB, 2002.

35 Confidential report from Burma Issues, April 2003. SHRF, January 2003.

36 SHRF, January 2003.

37 ‘Lands confiscated for new battalions’, Mon Forum, 31 January 2003.

38 ‘Burmese army grabs huge tracts of civilian land for newer settlement: Design to tip ethnic balance in Arakan State? ‘ Narinjara, 5 March 2003.

39 Confidential report from Burma Issues. April 2003.

40 ‘Country report: Burma’, United States’ Country Reports, 2002.

41 Veronika Martin & Betsy Apple, ‘Burma’s internally displaced: No options for a safe haven’, Refugees International, 10 October 2002.

42 ‘Monthly human rights situation report, Tenasserim Division’, MTDID, March 2003

43 MTDID, January 2003.

44 Special report on Myitta forced relocation camp, September 2002.

45 ‘Monthly report’, SHRF, January 2002. Therese M. Caouette & Mary E. Pack, ‘Pushing past the definitions: Migration from Burma to Thailand’, Refugees International & the Open Society Institute, December 2002.

46 MTDID, March 2003.

47 ‘The suffering… endured here is very hard’, Burma Courier, 27 January ?2 February 2002.

48 MTDID, January 2003.

49 ‘IDPs in Myanmar and forced repatriation from Thailand’, Asian Legal Resource Centre, E/ CN. 4/ 2003/ NGO/ 151, 2003.

50 Martin & Apple.

51 Martin & Apple.

52 ‘Cease-fire agreements: Burden or blessing? ‘ Burma Issues, April 2002.

53 Christina Fink, ‘Life under military rule: The pressure to conform’, Burma Debate, Fall 2000.

54 ‘Award for new solider recruit’, Mon Forum, January 2003. ‘Child soldiers in SPDC army run from the frontline to freedom’, New Era Journal, May 2003.

55 MTDID, January & February 2003.

56 Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, ‘Questions of the violation of human rights and fundamental freedoms in any part of the world: Written submission to the Commission on Human Rights by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar’, E/ CN. 4/ 2003/ 41, 27 December 2002.

57 ‘If you have a lot of money, there’s no need to go to jail’, Kwe Kalu, 28 February 2003.

58 SHRF, January & March 2003.

59 Martin & Apple.

60 ‘Myanmar labels latest rape accusations as “too ridiculous” ‘, AFP, 6 April 2003.

61 SHRF, February 2003.