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UN Official Says Millions Go Hungry in Burma Despite Vast Agricultural Resources

The World Food Program says millions are going hungry in Burma despite the country's vast natural agricultural potential. Officials of the U.N. food agency say much of the blame goes to the military government's refusal to enact economic reforms. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

In the decades before the 1962 coup that brought Burma's military to power, the country was the world's top exporter of rice. Now, World Food Program officials estimate five million people, roughly 10 percent of the population, are on the verge of starvation.

Since that coup, the Burmese military has controlled all sectors of the country's economy.

Tony Banbury, the WFP's top official in Asia, told reporters in Bangkok Thursday the Burmese government's policies are to blame for the food shortages.

"There are very harsh policies related to travel of people to go from one village to another, village to town, so a farmer or someone who is producing some agricultural goods or something to sell in a market needs to get special permission to go to that market," said Banbury. "That's a very strong disincentive to people who may be afraid to ask permission, can't take the time to get it, the person who gives it is too hard to reach. There are lots of reasons why people can't get that permission or don't get it, and so they can't engage in regular commerce."

The Burmese government forces rice farmers to sell their harvests to the state alone and at below-market prices. Banbury says this practice has strangled production.

"If they know that they're not going to be able to sell their product for market prices, why make all the effort to grow it if they can't sell it on the market? That means that they tend to produce less than they otherwise would," added Banbury. "They produce enough for self-sufficiency for their family, but they don't produce a surplus."

World Food Program officials say they have repeatedly urged the Burmese government to enact reforms, but they say the military leaders have given no hint they are inclined to change the system.

The WFP is urging nations to boost their donations to feed the hungry in Burma. They say only Australia has continued to donate since last month's military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. The United States, which has stern sanctions in place against the military leadership, has limited its donations to $300,000.