Economist warns of rice shortages in Burma

Jun 18, 2008 (DVB), Burmese economist Khin Maung Nyo has said he is worried that Burma will suffer rice shortages in the coming year, despite the regime's claims that the cyclone had a minimal effect on production.

The World Food Programme has previously warned that the country would face a serious rice crisis next year if there was no rice cultivation in time for this year's harvest season.

But on 10 June, one week after the WFP's warning, the junta's National Planning and Economic Development minister Soe Thar rejected the idea that the cyclone-affected country would run short of rice, saying it was "groundless to make such judgement since the amount of rice production in Irrawaddy and Rangoon Divisions only covered 2.3 % of that of the whole country".

Soe Thar also said that the military regime had enough rice stockpiled in order to distribute its citizens sufficiently.

Khin Maung Nyo had predicted that there would not be a rice shortage in the country when DVB interviewed him regarding the increase in world rice prices and its impact on Burma before Cyclone Nargis struck the Southeast Asian nation.

But in an interview earlier this week, the economist said the cyclone had reversed his previous assessment.

DVB: What is the difference in your calculation of Burma's rice situation now? You said before the cyclone that it should not be a cause for concern.

KMN: Yes, it is correct that I said there would not be a rice shortage in Burma that time. Now I don't have my own data to judge the current situation. However, I have found two different versions of the assessment of the rice crisis in the country. The regime's officials have claimed that there is enough rice and no need to worry much about it. At the same time, organisations like WFP have said they are worried about forthcoming rice scarcity in our nation. In my opinion, I am concerned over whether official data from the regime are reliable and I am worried that there will not be sufficient rice. My calculation before Nargis has been reversed in post-cyclone era.

DVB: You thought before the cyclone hit Burma that the country had enough rice stockpiled?

KMN: Correct. Also, it is true that there was reserve rice kept before the cyclone but unfortunately, it all got wet when the storm devastated the country. My prediction was right under pre-cyclone circumstances.

DVB: When you talked about the sufficiency of rice did you include the rice bowl Irrawaddy Division?

KMN: Yes, it was included.

DVB: If so, how badly do you think the Irrawaddy Delta has been affected by the storm?

KMN: It is obvious that the regular rice imports from the Delta have disappeared. Also, the rice price has noticeably increased. So I am worried about it based on the indicators , price hike and lack of supply. In my opinion, I don't think we have enough domestic capacity to make the situation better by ourselves. We must have massive effective international assistance. In terms of foreign assistance, it is still in the assessment stages. They [foreign agencies] first assess the situation and then they will talk about how they should help and how much assistance is needed for recovery. To be frank, I haven't seen any prospect of massive assistance going into Burma.

DVB: Could you please compare the assessments of the WFP and minister Soe Thar? What do you think about their data?

KMN: I am concerned about the reliability of the official data from the regime. Their data are reliable sometimes. For instance, what they said and what I predicted before Nargis were in agreement. But after the cyclone, I became worried.

DVB: As an academic, how do you think the situation can be remedied in the harvest season? What would you suggest?

KMN: The answer is what I said earlier. I don't think there is enough domestic capacity to recover the whole situation. In my opinion, I am worried that using domestic capacity such as small tractors, cows and paddy seeds for germination will not even cover what we have lost during the cyclone.

DVB: Do you think farmers who lost their rice fields will be able to work on land belonging to others who were killed by the storm?

KMN: Farmers are normally obsessed with their own lands so I don't think it will be easy for them to work on others' property.

DVB: In general, what is your prediction for Burma's rice situation in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis?

KMN: I am worried about the rice shortage in the country.

Reporting by Aye Nai

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