Eastern Burma facing 'severe' food crisis

Oct 19, 2009 (DVB), Armed conflict has contributed to what could be the worst food security problem in Burma's eastern Karen state in over a decade, a report by Karen rights group has warned.

Multiple factors, including recent conflict, abnormal rainfall and pest infestation, have hit Karen state in recent month and laid the groundwork for one of the lowest yielding seasons in recent memory.

The region was the scene of fierce fighting in June this year between government troops and the opposition Karen National Union (KNU) that forced some 4,000 refugees into Thailand.

A report by the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), 'Starving them out', pointed to increased activity by the Burmese army as a major factor in the food shortage.

Since 2006 the government has pursued a policy aimed at eradicating the food production abilities of the Karen people in an attempt to "significantly undermine food security," the report states. It is hoped this tactic will undercut local civilian support for the KNU.

An official at the Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP), Saw Steve, echoed the report's findings.

"The target is to destroy the food supply of the villagers, not only paddy crops but long term crops like mangosteen, jackfruit, beetle nut and other fruits and vegetables from cultivation," he said.

The tactic marks a departure from past strategies used by the Burmese army, who until 2006 only carried out sporadic offensives against the KNU, usually commencing during the cold and hot seasons and halting in the wet season.

This break in fighting traditionally allowed local farmers the chance to harvest their crops, ensuring a stable food supply for the following months.

According to Saw Steve, government troops often launch mortars and other artillery into paddy fields, meaning farmers "dare not work in the paddy fields full time." He added that during the harvest season farmers now only work up to 20 days a month.

Inability to tend to fields has meant that crops are now more susceptible to pest infestations and disease, and the overrunning of crops by other animals.

But the surge of military activity in the area is not the only contributing factor to this season's drastically low yield.

Abnormal weather patterns have led to higher than average rainfall, meaning important 'slash and burn' farming practices cannot be carried out.

The KHRG predicts that as the Burmese army continues to "consolidate control" in Karen state, the negative effects on the food supply will be cumulative.

The report asserts that the lower quantities of available land, paired with larger populations of internally displaced people (IDPs), disease, continually interrupted agricultural cycles and unpredictable weather, have left some villages in the region "on the brink of starvation."

Reporting by Matthew Cunningham

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