One in ten Burmese is going to bed hungry and an estimated five million people do not have enough food, UN officials said yesterday.
The hunger gripping rural communities has spread to cities because of the steep increases in the costs of fuel and other commodities which provoked last month's nationwide protests against the ruling military junta.
Burma used to be known as the rice bowl of Asia and, on paper at least, it still has a food surplus. But according to Paul Risley, an official with the World Food Programme, who has just returned from the country, many people are struggling to survive on meagre meals. "We can presently only provide food to about 500,000 vulnerable persons – far less than is needed," Mr Risley said. "There are points of real poverty and food insecurity in parts of Burma's urban areas.
"This has happened before but it is becoming a larger problem, for example, among particularly vulnerable groups such as HIV and Aids patients. We haven't yet talked to the regime about alleviating this but we are receiving requests from non-governmental organisations and other groups working in urban areas to investigate the problem."
In a visit planned before last month's bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests, a WFP team including Mr Risley and Tony Banbury, its regional director for Asia, spent five days in Burma and visited the southern Shan stateat the heart of the Golden Triangle – once one of the world's most important areas of illegal opium cultivation. There, they found desperate poverty among the former opium farmers.
"Southern Shan state has a food surplus and we saw corn being harvested. Outside every house, corn cribs were brimming with corn and the rice was on the point of being harvested as well," Mr Risley said. "But the tragic thing is that, just minutes away from the main road, there are traditional mountain communities without access to land and without enough food.
"These are tribes who traditionally carry their wealth on their bodies in the form of silver and gold bracelets. In several villages we were told they were selling their bracelets to obtain food. We believe some of them are going back to opium production because they don't want to lose all their wealth."
Officials also visited the western state of Rakhine, formerly Arakan, which is home to hundreds of thousands of Rohingas – the predominantly Muslim people expelled from Bangladesh years ago after fleeing there from Burma, and who are now essentially stateless. "We have been feeding the Rohingas for 10 years and their conditions have not improved and their livelihood has not improved," Mr Risley added. "It is an intractable situation. It could be alleviated by economic and social reform, by the free movement of people, food and resources."
Similar problems of mass hunger are found in other border regions, including Karen tribal areas in the west which WFP officials were not allowed to see. "On most parts of the border, conflicts have stopped for the past 10 years but food insecurity remains owing to the inability of the government to prioritise the development and the feeding of its people," said Mr Risley. "The sale of commodities is controlled by an elite. The wealth of Burma is in its natural resources – oil, gas, timber, gems – and the income from this does not reach the people."
The UN estimates that one third of children under five are underweight and 10 per cent are classified as acutely malnourished or "wasted". Child mortality rates of 106 per 1,000 are among the worst in Asia.
One Burma analyst said last night: "The generals who took over in 1988 prided themselves on being more technocratic than Ne Win, the dictator from 1962, but they ignore the rest of the economy. They don't care whether rice gets to the people because they are earning $2bn a year selling natural gas to Thailand. They don't need to care about the economic distress in the rest of the country."
* Burma's military government announced last night the formation of a constitution drafting commission – another step in the junta's "road map" to democracy which is supposed to lead to free and fair elections.