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Burma's Control of Transportation System Contributes to Hunger

The World Food Program is renewing its calls for donations to help feed the millions it says are suffering malnutrition in Burma, or Myanmar as it is also known. WFP officials say the military government's rigid control of the transportation system and the cost of moving goods are major causes of the problem. VOA's Luis Ramirez reports from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.

Burma is not short of food. The country saw a rise in its rice exports in 2007. But the United Nations World Food Program says the military government's tight restrictions on the movement of people and goods within the country is keeping an estimated five million Burmese without adequate nutrition.

Paul Risley, the WFP's Asia spokesman, tells VOA getting food to the remote areas where it is needed most is one of the biggest challenges the agency faces. Transportation is tightly controlled, he says, and very expensive.

"The transportation system is very much a closed...state-regulated, state-administered program," he said. "So much of our food is transferred and transported by companies and transport companies that are owned by the government and the ruling elite."

WFP officials say entrusting food shipments and paying donated money to the corruption-ridden state transportation system presents a dilemma for the agency. Risley says the WFP has controls in place to make sure the food ends up in the right hands.

"All of the food that we distribute is grown locally. We purchase rice that is grown in the delta regions of Myanmar, and thus usually our biggest expense is in transporting that rice or other food commodities toward the remote regions where we provide it to the communities," said Risley. "So, we are very concerned that our funding be spent solely on the transport of rice and other commodities, and not to go to the benefit of any particular individuals and families or people that are associated with the government of Myanmar."

The WFP says Burma's military government has eased recently eased transport restrictions in one area of Rakhine state. Agency officials say they hope more areas will follow.

Some governments including that of the United States have restricted direct aid to Burma as the country's military rulers continue to crack down on political dissent. However, U.S. and WFP officials plan to meet in Washington and Rome in the coming days to discuss a possible boost in U.S. assistance.

U.S. First Lady Laura Bush, who has taken the issue of Burma as a personal cause, last week issued a statement condemning the Burmese military rulers on the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the country's independence.

Mrs. Bush said the Burmese people are living in fear and poverty under the leadership of the generals, who she said have plundered the country's economy and rich natural resources, making Burma one of the poorest countries in the region.