The land devastated by cyclone Nargis is struck by another calamity.
It is an impressive arsenal — more than 100 weapons, each with a sensitive trigger — but it is a feeble defence against the enemy threatening Mgun Ling and his village in Chin state, deep in the jungles of western Myanmar. Theirs is an unconventional war: their weapons are traps, their enemy rats.
“We can catch hundreds of rats a night, but it makes no difference,” said Mgun Ling. “They just keep coming. They’ve destroyed all our crops, and now we have nothing left to eat.”
Four months after cyclone Nargis devastated Myanmar, another natural disaster has struck the country. This time the ruling military regime has had 50 years to prepare for it, yet it has still proved unable and unwilling to respond.
The disaster, known in Myanmar as maudam, is caused by a cruel twist of nature. Once every 50 years or so the region’s bamboo flowers, producing a fruit. The fruit attracts hordes of rats, which feed on its seeds. Some believe the rich nutrients in the seeds cause the rodents to multiply quickly, creating an infestation. After devouring the seeds, the rats turn on the villagers’ crops, destroying rice and corn. In a country once known as the rice bowl of Asia, thousands of villagers are on the brink of starvation.
The last three cycles of flowering occurred in 1862, 1911 and 1958, and each time they were followed by a devastating famine. The current maudam is proving just as disastrous. A report last month by the Chin Human Rights Organisation estimates that up to 200 villages are affected by severe food shortages and at least 100,000 people, or 20 per cent of the population of Chin, are in need of immediate food aid.
Chin, home to the ethnic minority Chin people, is one of the most undeveloped and isolated regions of Myanmar. These remote mountainous communities, which survive on subsistence farming, have reached breaking point.
“We have no food left,” said the head of one village. “Last year during the harvest the rats came and ate almost all our rice. Our corn has also been totally destroyed. I have just one bag of rice left for my family. After that there’s nothing. People in my village are going into the jungle to find wild vegetables, like leaves and roots to mix with a little rice. Our situation is desperate.”
Leisa, 74, who witnessed the last maudam, claimed that this famine was worse. “In the past the bamboo flowered all at one time. The rats came, destroyed our crops, and then left. This time the bamboo is flowering in patches and each time it flowers, a new wave of rats come. Previously, we suffered for just one or two years, but now we are worried it may last seven or eight years.”
The crisis is turning villages into ghost communities, as the Chin leave their homes in search of food, or a new life, in India. One village headman said: “Last year, we had 60 households in our village but half have already moved to India due to the food crisis. Even with only 30 households there is still not enough food for everyone.”
Every day, scores of villagers follow a tortuous mountain track to an unmanned border post into India, battling monsoon downpours, knee-deep mud and malaria. Some move to India for good, others like Chitu trek for days to buy food and haul it home. “Every single week we have to walk to India to buy rice there. The round trip takes four days. My children have had to stop going to school because they have to spend all their time carrying rice.”
Despite the predictability of the disaster, there has been no sign of help from the Burmese junta. One village chief said: “We made a formal request to the chairman of the township council and the local army commander for food, but we got no response from them.”
In fact, rather than tackling the crisis, the military is compounding it. Since the junta took power in Myanmar in 1962, the Chin have suffered violent oppression at the hands of the army. The use of unpaid forced labour, forced substitution of staple crops for cash crops and arbitrary taxation is rife. A report last year by the Women’s League of Chinland accused the army of systematic sexual violence against Chin women.
“Every month we receive a letter ordering us to attend a meeting at the local army camp,” said one village head. “At the meetings they demand work from us and force us to send villagers to construct their barracks. Worst of all they order us to send them food, like chickens, cooking oil and chillies, but since we don’t have any we have to collect money from villagers to send in its place.
“Last month, I failed to attend the meeting, because I was too busy collecting rice from India. When I got back to my village I found an envelope with a bullet in it. I was terrified. I thought they were going to come and kill me.”
Cheery Zahau of the Women’s League of Chinland said: “The maudam has affected India and Myanmar equally, but the Indian government has been preparing for it since 2002. For example, they pay their citizens for every rat they catch. The Myanmarese junta has done nothing. It’s not just that they don’t care. In my opinion, they are deliberately ignoring the disaster because they want the region to be cleansed of Chin people. Chin groups in the border region have been trying to mobilise aid, but our resources are very limited. We desperately need international assistance.”
While the Chin await aid, the exodus to India continues. “We love our native land,” said one villager. “But we don’t know how we can survive here any longer.” — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2008