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UN Official: Burma's Policies Undermining Food Aid - 2004-09-14

A senior United Nations World Food Program official is criticizing Burma's agricultural and economic policies, saying they are causing malnutrition in one third of children under age five.

A top official for the U.N. World Food Program leveled her criticisms at Burma's military government after a four-day tour of the country.

Sheila Sisulu accused the military government of undermining World Food Program efforts to alleviate poverty as part of crop substitution and other food assistance programs in Burma.

Ms. Sisulu, speaking to reporters, says government restrictions on market access for cash crops has led to a man-made crisis that can only be resolved by policy reforms.

"I told all the officials that I met that the policies of the government were in fact impoverishing these people," she said. "It is making it more and more difficult for us to continue our humanitarian work."

In the restive northern Shan State, near the border with China, the U.N. agency is helping about 200,000 people in a crop substitution plan that encourages farmers to raise cash crops instead of opium poppies. Burma is the second largest opium producer after Afghanistan.

While the program has succeeded in reducing opium output, Ms. Sisulu says it has also resulted in drastic food shortages as farmers try to adjust and the military government restricts people's movement.

Ms. Sisulu says Burmese officials told her the restrictions were necessary because of the region's security situation.

"What is the point of these people being assisted to grow food commodities if they do not have market access because the policy of the government restricts their movement and the movement of their goods?" she asked.

On her visit, Ms. Sisulu also met with members of Aung San Suu Kyi's political party, the National League for Democracy, and representatives of several ethnic groups.

Burma, one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries, has been under military control since a coup in 1962. The government is regularly accused of economic mismanagement despite the country's abundant resources.