10/05/2007, 00.00
MYANMAR

Burma’s children hunger for rice

Behind the monks’ protest is hunger for rice, as well freedom. The vast wealth of the nation is exploited solely by the military regime while the majority of the people live below the poverty line. The media is even forbidden to speak about the children who are dying of Dengue.

Yangon (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Protests in Myanmar were not provoked by hunger for freedom alone, but also by hunger for rice in a country where the vast natural resources make the military dictatorship rich while the people literally are dying from hunger.  The monk’s protests began in Pakkoku and then spread to Sittwe, capital of Rakhine state: two the nation’s poorest regions, where child malnutrition reaches an alarming 20%: in poverty stricken Niger it stands at “only” 18%.

The area around Pakkoku is called the “Dry Zone” a desolate wasteland between mountains and forests, with a large population but scarce rice crops.  There are no official statistics, but according to private sources child mortality rates reach two babies a day out of 10 thousand inhabitants.  Not only from malnutrition but also because of an absence in medical care.  In 2007 it is estimated that 3 thousand children in Myanmar have died from the worst epidemic of Dengue this decade.  But the media is forbidden to speak of it.

Young people leave in search of work.  Mothers stay away for months to earn money for their children left at home: they labour in fish factories, work as cooks in gum plantations, or prostitute themselves in the mining towns.

The country is rich in precious woods, rubies and natural gas, but only the military chiefs benefit from its wealth along with the companies that support them, According to a United Nations report and a Myanmanr government report, 36% of the population live below the poverty line (on less than a dollar a day), but the real number is far higher and it grows every year.  Sanctions imposed by the United States and Europe have had little effect, with China, India and ASEAN nations who continue to exploit the country’s resources.

The humanitarian agency, Action against hunger, which has centres in northern Rakhine told Reuters that the situation was already critical but has become unbearable with the recent price hikes in fuel costs in mid August.  In less than a month the price of rice, the basic food of the poor, has risen three fold.

For years the monks bore witness to this daily reality, before taking to the streets to protest for the people who are dying of hunger.

Local sources tells that the curfew has not effected the middle class, who works every day from 9 to 5, but it has had disastrous affects on the poor: for mothers who rise every night at 2 am to go to the fish and vegetable markets to buy a case of produce to sell on and earn what little they can to feed their children, at least for one day.

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