'In the past year not a single grain of relief has reached us'
As rats devour crops, villagers flee famine in Myanmar
KOLKATA // Villagers in western Myanmar are battling famine, after a plague of rats ravaged food crops, forcing hundreds of people to flee to India in search of food. About 1,300 people have crossed over the porous border from Myanmar's Chin state into neighbouring India seeking food after rats - attracted by a rare bloom of bamboo plant - began devouring crops from September last year, aid agencies said.
"Paddy, corn and millet fields across some hundreds of villages are swarming with rats and before farmers can harvest, the crops are being eaten up by the pests," said Salai Chinzah, the chairman of Chin Humanitarian Relief Committee (CHRC), based in Mizoram. "While the same phenomenon has not created any crisis on the Indian side of the border because of adequate relief from the Indian government, inside Myanmar, it is causing havoc in the absence any relief from Myanmar's government." In some of the five worst-hit districts of Chin - Thangtlang, Matupi, Paletwa, Falam and Tonzang - there has been no grain harvested for a year, affecting 120,000 people.
One villager, staying in a refugee camp on the Indian side of the border, said the 100 or so families in his village had been completely dependent on their rice and corn plantations, but in the past year they lost more than three-quarters of the grain to rats. "Except very few of those who migrate out of our area, we in our village have no income at all. By travelling on foot for three days we used to go to the nearest town to sell part of our crops to get money for clothing and medicine," said Khichei, who with his wife and five children crossed the border and sought refuge in Chakhei village in Mizoram in May.
"This [rat famine] has taken away our food, clothing and even vital medicines for the past year. In 2006 a bag of rice sold at 15,000 kyats [Dh45.8], but in the beginning of this year it touched 30,000 kyats a bag," said Mr Khichei, who like many locals on both sides of the border uses only one name. "Years ago village elders had foretold of this famine. Two years ago, our village representatives informed the government officials of the impending crisis. But in the past year not a single grain of [government] relief has reached us. The village got some food relief from the Indian side but that too was not enough to get us even one meal a day."
Bawicung, a refugee, who with his wife and four children took refuge in Mizoram town of Saiha in May, said: "After the bag of rice supplied to us from a Mizoram church ran out, we had no food to eat at home. From the forest we collected wild yam and tung [a wild tree] stem which saw us through for two or three months. But when the children refused to eat those strange foods, with some of our neighbours we decided to leave our village."
In border districts of Mizoram and Manipur, relief organisations like CHRC, Chin Famine Emergency Relief Committee and some churches are providing the refugees with financial aid from private donors. "The worst part of the crisis is that [Myanmar's military junta] does not accept that there is a food crisis in Chin caused by this rat famine although for almost one year tens and thousands of people are starving there," said Vanlianthang, a secretary of Chin National Council, a political organisation, in Aizawl, Mizoram's capital.
Mr Vanlianthang said the government was punishing the Chin state for voting against a referendum for a new constitution in May by not sending them any food aid. "We cannot send them any aid openly because it could infuriate the junta. Yet, we are sending some aid to the affected people who are trapped in the crisis, using some secret channels," he said. Another refugee, Vanlathang, 84, was born in Chin state and said the last time the bamboo blossomed was in 1959 but the famine was not as bad as the current situation.
"Then [in 1958-1959] the bamboo bloom lasted just a few months. The crisis of rats did not last more than a year. But this time the bamboo forests are blooming in phases. One year has gone by and we are getting reports of new flowering, which means some weeks later, a new wave of rats will come," he said. "I am sure this [time] is going to last for some years at least and it means further miseries for one of the poorest people of the world."
During the last famine, half of the villages in famine-hit districts were abandoned by the people, most of whom crossed the border and settled in Indian border states or migrated to other parts of Myanmar. Although the famine surfaced towards the end of last year, news of the crisis only reached the outside world in June after some local aid agencies informed international non-governmental organisations. In response, the World Food Programme and other UN agencies sent some emergency food aid in July. Of the 100 villages worst-hit by the famine, about 20 received international relief packages.
International aid workers based in Myanmar are not allowed to travel to the remote tribal areas and so aid has to be passed through Local officials. "The crisis is worsening with [blossoming] showing no sign of waning. From a group of refugees who arrived here [Mizoram] last week we knew that some hundreds of families in the famine-hit five districts are planning to move to India because they are desperate to save the lives of their children who find it very difficult to cope with this unprecedented food crisis in their life," said Mr Chinzah.
India, however, does not want to allow so many refugees into its territory, he said. "The best solution is to send more food relief to the affected villages from the Indian side of the border through secret channels." * The National