Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Experts Challenge Than Shwe’s Rice Production Claims

The Irrawaddy News

Claims by Burmese junta leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe that Burma is enjoying a rice production surplus are being greeted with skepticism by the experts.

Than Shwe made his claims—including a statement that Burma is making remarkable progress in agriculture—one day after the first anniversary of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated the country’s richest rice producing region.

Farmers there are still struggling to restore their destroyed paddy fields.

A temporary shelter for survivors of the May 2008 Cyclone Nargis. Hundreds of thousands of people are living without adequate food and shelter in Burma a year after a deadly cyclone ravaged large swathes of the country. (Photo: AFP)

In a report issued in July 2008, three months after the cyclone hit Burma’s Irrawaddy delta, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization said 63 percent of the paddy fields there were still under water, up to 85 percent of seed stocks had been destroyed and 75 percent of farmers lacked sufficient seed to prepare for a new harvest.

Earlier this week, as Than Shwe was delivering his disputed report to a Naypyidaw meeting, an official of the World Food Program said most households in the delta were worried about food shortages. “In fact, even some farmers who own dozens of acres of paddy are unable to feed themselves,” he said.

Reporting to the Naypyidaw meeting on Monday, Than Shwe said—according to the state-run newspaper The New Light of Myanmar—“due to remarkable progress in the agricultural sector, the nation had not only self-sufficiency but also surplus in food.”

The paper said Than Shwe told the meeting that when the present government came to power in 1988 paddy output was just over 600 million baskets annually (a basket is 33 kilograms). Today, Than Shwe claimed, annual output was about 1,600 million baskets, and efforts were being made to increase this to 2,000 million baskets.

“Complete rubbish,” was the reaction of Burma expert Sean Turnell, associate professor at Australia’s Macquarie University “Burma’s rice production is routinely, ludicrously exaggerated.”

Turnell said: “Farmers are under the gun to report good production numbers to their superiors, like the pattern of the former Soviet Union and other places. Meanwhile, bribes and corruption grease the wheels along the way.”

If Burma really had tripled its rice production, said Turnell, the country would once again be one of the world’s largest rice exporters.

However, Burma exports only a small amount of rice—much of it a broken, poor quality product which finds customers in Africa.

Far from having a surplus, said Turnell, Burma faced widespread food shortages this year.

A leading Burmese economist who requested anonymity told The Irrawaddy, “Than Shwe’s speech may have been intended to counter the UN and other international organizations reports about food shortages in Burma.”

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