Page last updated at 16:04 GMT, Wednesday, 28 January 2009

'Six million Burmese need food'

By Jonathan Head
BBC South East Asia correspondent

Burmese plant peas in a field near Mandalay, Burma
Some rural areas of Burma have been plagued by rats

The United Nations has warned of acute food shortages in parts of Burma, despite a better than expected rice harvest over the past year.

Its World Food Programme has issued a report warning that six million people in Burma are now in need of food aid.

They include a million in the Irrawaddy Delta, hit by Cyclone Nargis last year.

But the WFP says it cannot get enough food aid to the western Rohingya and Chin areas, because of restrictions imposed by the military government.

When Cyclone Nargis wiped out Burma's rice-bowl, the Irrawaddy Delta, last year, it was widely assumed that the country would face severe food shortages.

And the UN's World Food Programme says that is what has happened - but not because Burma is growing any less rice.

Military restrictions

Production has dropped by half in the Irrawaddy Delta - but in other regions, yields have been much higher, so that there is actually a healthy surplus available for export.

Chin woman, refugee camp, Malaysia 2007

But the number of Burmese who cannot grow or buy enough to eat has risen sharply to six million, says the WFP.

The UN wants to increase food aid - but cannot, because the government inexplicably stopped it from buying rice locally last year, and because the military restricts access to the worst-hit areas along the western border.

These are where ethnic Rohingya and Chin people live; their plight is reported to be desperate, with Chin state hit by a huge plague of rats.

The UN is hoping its appeal will persuade the Burmese government to lift these restrictions.

The dire conditions in which most Rohingyas live is one of the factors driving so many of them to Thailand, where they claim to have been subjected to brutal treatment at the hands of the Thai military in recent weeks.

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