Hunger Stalks Many in Myanmar After Double Whammy of Coup And COVID-19

Myanmar’s 54 million people were already among Southeast Asia’s poorest before the twin crises.

Hunger Stalks Many in Myanmar After Double Whammy of Coup And COVID-19

After a yearlong shutdown of most economic activity to fight the coronavirus, many citizens of Myanmar are now threatened with grave food shortages 100 days after a military coup added political turmoil and military violence to their already difficult lives, U.N. agencies and activists say.

Even before the double whammy of the coup and coronavirus, Myanmar ranked last in nominal per capita GDP of the 10 members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) — a legacy of decades of war in border regions and mismanagement by the same military that seized power on Feb. 1.

The situation has gone from bad to worse with the military takeover and the violent repression of widespread popular resistance in a country that shook off five decades of military rule a decade ago.

“Many people in Myanmar are facing hardship now,” said Marcus Prior, deputy country director for the Word Food Programme in Myanmar. He added that 3.4 million people could face “food insecurity over the next six months in cities across Myanmar.”

The 3.4 million threatened with hunger are mostly urban residents and are “over and above the 2.8 million people considered to be food insecure in Myanmar before the military takeover,” the U.N.’s food-assistance branch was quoted by the U.N.’s news agency on April 22.

“More and more poor people have lost their jobs and are unable to afford food,” said WFP Myanmar Country Director Stephen Anderson, who appealed for contributions to “prevent an alarming deterioration in food security.”

Families in and around the commercial center and former capital Yangon, home to 7.3 million people, were “skipping meals, eating less nutritious food and taking on debt to feed themselves” after losing jobs and incomes, the agency report said.

Military rule and the COVID-19 pandemic together could drive nearly half of Myanmar’s 54 million people into poverty next year, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) has forecast.

The two crises has brought the closure of factories that has resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of jobs in industrial zones, said labor activist Ye Naing Win.

“Since the outbreak of COVID-19, nearly 200,000 labors have lost their jobs in industrial zones, a number that has increased after the military coup,” he said.

“Before, there were as many as 700,000 labors in the textile industry alone. Now, the number has been reduced to 400,000.”

As of Monday, Myanmar’s Ministry of Health and Sports reported 142,963 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including 16 news ones, while the number of reported deaths held at 3,210 since the first virus-related fatality was recorded in March 2020.

Nearly all factories and workshops have been closed because of the violent suppression of protests by the junta and fires at multiple factories at Yangon’s Hlaingthaya industrial zone in Yangon in mid-March, leaving of workers jobless.

The death toll since the Feb. 1 coup reached 781 as of Monday, according to a Thailand-based NGO called the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners.

Cash-poor Burmese

Some foreign investors have pulled out or delayed investments in the face of political violence and uncertainty, and with sanctions imposed on the Myanmar military and its businesses.

Citing World Bank and Asian Development data, the Irrawaddy online news outlet said the coup had resulted in the suspension of 50 development projects and U.S. $3 billion in investment, with company registrations down 87 percent as of May 3.

A female worker and mother of three children in Yangon who lost her job when the factory that employed closed told RFA that the hardship and uncertain future she faces is making her ill.

“I have been laid off. I cannot get a job anywhere else at my age. I have kids and need to buy necessities. I don’t know what to do and it gives me headache every day,” said the woman who declined to be named.

A homemaker in Yangon said that her family can’t afford to buy anything through prices have not risen.

“We cannot purchase anything since we are cash poor,” she said. “Many people don’t have a job and they cannot buy food and commodities.”
The WFP reported in April that average rice prices had increased across the country by five percent since January, while cooking oil increased nine percent month-on-month, and chickpea prices saw a five-percent month-on-month increase. The cost of fuel nationwide rose by about 30 percent.

The WFP also said that prices of staple foods had skyrocketed in the border states of Rakhine, Kachin and Chin, with rice prices increasing up to 43 percent in some Kachin townships and cooking oil by 32 percent.

Bo Sein, founder of Bo Sein Humanitarian Assistance Group, has been providing assistance to low-income people in Yangon who work as construction workers, carpenters, or motorcycle, trishaw, and tax drivers.

“People are facing hardships. The number of people struggling is very high, especially the squatters … [who] are low income workers living from hand to mouth.

“All of them have lost their jobs under the current conditions,” he said. “Taxi drivers and motorcycle drivers are not making any money. They are all struggling to survive.”

Domestic tourism hit

The economic woes also have hit the tourism industry, with a domestic tourism business owner saying he reduced the working hours of his staff to half-time, but then closed his doors as the economy deteriorated.

“The price of bus tickets has gone up, and people travel only for emergencies,” he said, adding that he has shut down all five of his branch offices.

“Most of our staff from other provinces have returned home, and their parents don’t want them to return to Yangon,” said the businessman, who declined to give his name. “Some employees said they will return to work only when they can work full-time.”

Myanmar political analyst Aung Thu Nyein said that the Economist Intelligence Unit estimated before the Feb. 1 coup that Myanmar’s economic growth would only be 0.5 percent, down from a previous estimate of seven-percent growth.

But the EIU now says that strong backlash to military rule with protests and striking workers will push the economy into a contraction of more than nine percent this year.

“Under the current conditions, people who live from paycheck to paycheck now have zero income,” he said. “It will subsequently hit the middle class next, [and] people like NGO workers who have regular salaries could lost their jobs. Their organizations could be closed.”

“Those who are still surviving by living off their saving and liquidating their assets could face hardships in the second wave,” he said.

Reported by July Myo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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Interview: Ending the Dictatorship 'Will Give Us a Better Future and Better Lives'

More than 80 percent of Myanmar's teachers support the Civil Disobedience Movement opposing the military junta, says Sai Khaing Myo Tun, deputy minister for education in the country's shadow National Unity Government (NUG).

Interview: Ending the Dictatorship 'Will Give Us a Better Future and Better Lives'

An education plan will soon be released to prevent students from losing their rights to public education, says Sai Khaing Myo Tun, Deputy Minister of Education of Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), a shadow government set up to counter the military regime that seized power Feb. 1. On May 9, RFA Myanmar Service's Khin Khin Ei interviewed Sai Khaing Myo Tun about how Myanmar’s ruling State Administration Council, the junta’s formal name, is suspending teachers involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), and what the NUG is planning now for Myanmar’s education sector.

RFA: What are you currently doing as the Deputy Minister for Education of the National Unity Government (NUG)?

Sai Khaing Myo Tun: We are making contact with teachers and with students involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) and are having discussions about education plans. Even though this is a revolutionary period, we are looking for ways to do this.

RFA: The State Administration Council is now suspending education staff. Would you comment on this?

Sai Khaing Myo Tun: The teachers themselves are determined not to work under the military junta's education system. At NUG, we set principles that are in line with the will of the teachers. We communicate with them and are trying to offer them moral support.

RFA: Some teachers have now left the CDM and have become non-CDM staff. What do you think about this?

Sai Khaing Myo Tun: The main issue here is the pressure put on them [by the junta] in terms of their security. This pressure includes violence directed not only at them but also at their families, involving very cruel methods. There are a lot of teachers who do not want to do non-CDM work. But there are also teachers who are not morally strong. The learned teachers I have contacted have not given up; they will do it [CDM] until the end of the revolution. And when the government elected by the people comes to power, they will carry out the duties of the people's government.

RFA: How many teachers are currently involved in CDM?

Sai Khaing Myo Tun: We are still counting the teachers in basic education. We have collected the lists [inside Myanmar], but most of them have not reached us yet. There are more than 400,000 teachers in Myanmar, including in the higher education department. You can imagine how many of these are involved in CDM work by looking at the fact that the schools cannot open now. If the classrooms were full of students [as the junta has said], it would not be possible to run these classes with such a small number of the current non-CDM teachers. I think that more than 80 percent of teachers are now involved in CDM. Now the State Administrative Council is not only suspending education officers, but also firing some of them. So the percentage of teachers doing CDM is over 80 percent, as I said.

RFA: We also heard that CDM education staff are facing difficulties and need help. What are you doing to help them?

Sai Khaing Myo Tun: We are making plans. One of our government ministers has said that they are planning to pay them their full salaries as much as possible. Even if we cannot help to that level, we are still doing our best to help.

RFA: The State Administration Council is trying to reopen the schools. Students are boycotting this, but there are also some students who want to study. What can you say about this situation?

Sai Khaing Myo Tun: We are making plans for this, too. The main thing is that students not lose their right to an education. Nor should this be delayed. In addition, we have set a "No one left behind" commitment, so that anyone can get an education. We will officially announce something soon. There will be opportunities for students to learn with teachers. Some students have suggested to us [the NUG] that we open schools for those students who are currently involved in the revolution. We will discuss all these issues and implement an education plan soon.

RFA: What message would you like to send to the students, teachers, parents, and other people who are now fighting the military dictatorship?

Sai Khaing Myo Tun: I want to say that both students and teachers have been resilient so far. The State Administration Council has used various forms of repression to oppress the people, including students and teachers, and many have already lost their lives. So we need to fight with resolve until the end of the revolution. At the same time, we are working to provide an education plan by linking to global education and linking to federal education: a plan for both the young and the grownup people in our country. It is very important that we completely overthrow the military dictatorship. This will give us a better future and better lives, and we will then be able to implement a better [program for] education.

Translated by Thane Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service.

Source : Radio Free Asia More   

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