Villagers who have fled their homes in eastern Burma keep moving. Many areas are dangerous because of landmines, military checkpoints and patrols.
By Violet Cho: Pacific Media Centre
Burmese civilians and internally displaced people in eastern parts of Burma are suffering severe food shortages due to the ongoing armed conflict and an increase of state militarisation. “The food shortage is a serious problem among internally displaced civilians and they now heavily rely on eating bamboo shoots and other food sources that they can collect in the jungle for their survival,” says Saw Steve, an executive member of Committee for Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP).
The Burmese civil society group, based on the Thai-Burma border, is working to assist communities effected by the crisis.
Burmese rights organisations are expressing deep concern for the civilians who are suffering direct consequences from the conflict between state military and ethnic resistance groups.
They also condemned the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), the ruling military regime in Burma, which has intensified their military operations in ethnic minority areas.
Local rights groups claim the food crisis is a direct result of systematic militarisation and exploitation by the regime.
Saw Albert, a leading member of the Karen Human Rights Group (KHRG), has been working on a recently released report on the crisis.
“The food crisis has been gradually worsening since the beginning of the SPDC's Northern Offensive in late 2005” he says.
“With increased attacks on village communities and an intensified forced relocation campaign over the last three and a half years, food insecurity is at an all-time high.
“In military-controlled areas, villagers struggle to both meet the constant demands of the SPDC and their allied military groups and provide food for their families.”
No hiding places Because of the ongoing conflict and repression in the area, it is very difficult and dangerous to meet affected villagers and provide relief.
Villagers who have fled their homes never have a permanent place to hide – they are constantly moving so local NGOs cannot know where to find them. Many areas are dangerous because of landmines, Burmese military checkpoints and patrols and active combat with insurgent armies.
Despite these risks, CIDKP field staff secretly distribute much needed supplied to small communities hiding in the forests.
If caught with supplies like food and medicine, field staff can be killed by Burmese troops, who use a strategy of cutting supplies to insurgent groups.
It is even more risky to carry equipment like cameras and recorders, as they are only used by activists documenting abuses. KHRG staff secretly collect testimonies from villagers in hiding and photograph abuses, which they use for their reports and advocacy.
One villager explained the extent of the food crisis to an anonymous KHRG field worker: “Only two villagers out of 10 have enough rice. They are borrowing from each other just to stay alive.”
Another villager from Nyaunglebin District, in northeastern Burma, explained that villagers do not have a proper time to do their own work for their survival.
“The SPDC army camp is located beside our village, so we always have to do loh ah pay [forced labour] for them. We do not have much time to do our own work. Now we are doing their work, such as cutting bamboo poles and delivering them to their [SPDC] camp.”
Villagers in displaced areas are sharing limited food supplies with each other just to stay alive. Because they are on the run, they cannot plant crops like rice, which is their staple food. Instead they rely on collecting food from the forest.
Paddy plants A villager who is displaced by the on-going military offensive said that “every time when the Burmese [SPDC] soldiers have arrived at our villager, we have had to flee. So, we haven’t had time to take care of our paddy plants in the fields. They [the fields] are covered with weed. If the SPDC did not disturb us, we would have enough food every year.”
Burmese populations in eastern parts of Burma can be categorised into two groups: those living in the SPDC controlled areas and those who hide in the jungle, refusing to live in forced relocation sites under military watch.
Due to the combination of military demands in the form of forced labour, arbitrary taxation, looting and ad hoc demands for food, money or other supplies, have placed a dangerous burden on villagers' livelihoods.
The practice of land confiscation, restriction of movement (villagers are not freely allowed to go to their farm or plantation areas) and forced relocation exacerbate poverty and dramatically increase food insecurity.
Meanwhile, in areas not under the military control, the SPDC troops are forcing villagers into relocation sites through their common practice of attacking villagers and destroying food stores, burning rice fields and livestock.
Villagers who managed to escape the military attacks are facing further threats of food insecurity their unstable living condition in hiding side in the forest, according to the KHRG report.
The report also documented the regime government’s shoot-on-sight policy, planting landmines and restrictions on villagers to trade with each other also created an extreme difficult for villagers to leave their hiding site in order to collect hidden food stores, to work in their former fields or purchase food supplies.
A villager interviewed by KHRG staff, complained that they felt like they were not treated as human beings. “The SPDC doesn’t see us as villagers. They identify us as their enemy. So when they see us, they shoot to kill us all.”
By documenting the food crisis, KHRG is providing recommendations for the international community on actions that can be taken to ease the current crisis and prevent future abuse and malnutrition in rural Burma.
The recommendations include increased support for cross-border aid and local civil society organisations, which can access affected populations and support the local food security protection measures that villagers in rural Burma have already developed.
Humanitarian aid KHRG spokeswoman September Paw called for increased humanitarian aid to villagers in rural Burma: "Villagers in Karen State are faced with a serious food crisis as the direct result of military abuse.
She explained how Burmese villagers have been trying their best seeking various ways to address this food crisis, to maintain their livelihoods and to resist military abuse. “Despite these strategies, there is a great need for humanitarian aid to be scaled up to reach these people.”
However, She confirmed that, “the locally-driven protection measures developed by villagers themselves should first be taken into account in order to effectively address this crisis.”
Like civilians in eastern part of Burma are now suffering form food crisis, Burmese people in western part of Burma, Chin State has been plagued by a severe food shortages due to the reduction of local harvest and food production.
The crisis was started in 2006 when a new cycle of bamboo flowering that occurs about every 50 years in the region.
This bamboo flowers are eaten by rats and triggering the explosion of rats population, which destroyed the crop.
This has caused serious food shortages for Burmese villagers, as they are primarily dependent on subsistence farming through shifting cultivation.
Violet Cho is from Burma and is the Asian Journalism Fellow with the Pacific Media Centre. She is is studying on the Bachelor of Communication Studies (Honours) programme. The picture of displaced Burmese villagers is from the Karen Human Rights Group report.
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