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UN Official Says Undernourishment Among Burmese Children Reaching Alarming Level

A senior U.N. official says there is an alarming rate of malnutrition among Burma's children. The head of the World Food Program is urging the government to change policies that he says are hurting efforts to combat the problem.

The director of the World Food Program, James Morris, says one-third of Burma's children are chronically malnourished, and, in some areas, the proportion is as high as two-thirds. And, noting that many mothers are also malnourished, he said the humanitarian cost is enormous.

"When numbers this large of children are at risk, to say nothing of the anemia condition of so many women in the country, the country's future is severely at risk," he said.

Mr. Morris, talking to reporters in Bangkok after a trip through Burma, said Burmese government policies on agriculture, marketing and the movement of people make it difficult for many Burmese to subsist.

He said the WFP is allowed to operate in Burma with relatively few restrictions. But he said many humanitarian workers are hampered by complex bureaucratic procedures, taxes and market restrictions on staples, such as rice.

"The government needs to be much more thoughtful and committed to addressing these tough issues that I have described," he said.

The WFP director said he sought to make this point in a meeting Thursday, with Burma's prime minister. He also met with some of the political opposition, though not with detained leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Burma's political situation has received worldwide attention, and the United States, the European Union and the United Nations have been harshly critical of the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi. But the problem of hunger in the country is not widely known.

Mr. Morris emphasized that his mission was not political, and was not related to efforts by the United Nations to push Burma's military leaders toward political reform.

The WFP currently provides food aid to three-quarters-of-a-million Burmese, including former growers of opium poppies, refugees returning from Bangladesh, and a growing population of HIV/AIDS victims.

Some critics of the Burmese government oppose any international aid to the country, saying it only strengthens the military regime. Others, however, say restrictions on humanitarian aid only hurt the Burmese people.