Flooding, Conflict Cause Rice Shortages in Burma's Far North

By Lawi Weng 25 September 2012

Residents of Putao District in Kachin State’s far north are facing severe shortages of rice due to flooding and an ongoing conflict farther south that has destroyed bridges and other key infrastructure.

Local sources say that around 2,000 people are in need of rice in the district, whose administrative center, the town of Putao, is located some 215 km north of Myitkyina, the state capital.

“No one is selling rice here at all, even though we have money to buy it,” said Teram, a pastor from the Kachin Baptist Convention (KBC) who spoke to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday.

He added that he does not have enough rice to feed 50 students studying at his Bible school.

“It’s a very serious problem, and we have no way to solve it.”

Already, the KBC has reported three deaths in Machanbaw Township related to the rice shortage. There have also been reports of others falling ill due to malnutrition, although no details were available.

To survive, some people have been eating bamboo shoots and banana plants, the group said.

The shortage began in August, but was temporarily allayed when members of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party and the opposition National League for Democracy sent rice to the area by plane, according to a statement released by the KBC on Monday.

Since then, however, no fresh supplies have arrived, forcing families in remote areas to forage for their food.

“Before, bamboo shoots were just food for cattle. But now they are all that many people have to eat, and even they are becoming difficult to find,” said the statement.

So far, the government has shipped only 700 50-kg bags of rice to Putao, and has strictly rationed it. Residents say they can get just half a liter to one liter of rice per person, and even this is only available to those living in town.

To deal with the crisis, religious leaders in Putao have collected 75 baskets of paddy to distribute to those most in need.

“But this will not solve the problem for long,” said Thong, a pastor from Machanbaw who is involved in the relief effort. “Only the government can fly in more rice, so only they can deal with this situation.”

But he said that the government has yet to offer any assistance. “Our greatest hope now is that a donor will supply the rice and pay to transport it here.”

However, state-run media carried a brief report today that said the chief minister of Kachin State, La John Ngan Hsai, sent an unspecified amount to rice to Putao on Saturday for local civil servants and others in need.

Meanwhile, others have highlighted the toll that the ongoing conflict between the Kachin Independence Army and the Burmese armed forces has taken on the state’s social and economic well-being.

“The artillery that they are using up there costs four million kyat [US $4,600] per shell. I told both sides that they should stop fighting and use that money to build schools and clinics,” said Min Ko Naing, a leading member of the 88 Generation Students group, at a press conference on Monday where he discussed his recent trip to Hpakant Township, a major battleground in the conflict.