Item 10 – Economic, social and cultural rights: Food Scarcity in Burma

On April 4, 2000, Professor Mark Tamthai of the People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma addressed the UN Commission on Human Rights 56th Session in Geneva, Switzerland.

Speaking under Item 10 of the Commission’s agenda, on Economic, Social & Cultural Rights, Professor Tamthai spoke to the Question of Food Scarcity in the Union of Myanmar.  The full text of his speech follows.  Please also see the People’s Tribunal web-site,, for the written submission of the Asian Legal Resource Centre on the Right to Food in Myanmar.

Mr. Chairman,

On behalf of Asian Legal Resource Centre I would like to bring to the Commission’s attention findings of The People’s Tribunal on Food Scarcity and Militarization in Burma.

What are your hopes and dreams for the future?

We posed this question to a farmer whose family had recently fled eastern Myanmar for Thailand, where they survived on handouts from relatives in a refugee camp.  He replied: “To be on the list? ‘ for me and my family to have the privilege of becoming refugees.”

His answer introduces the desperate problem of food-scarcity in Myanmar.  The conceivable future means securing the next meal, and a refugee’s life is something to wish for.   This predicament conveys something of the utter powerlessness felt by Myanmar’s hungry masses.

As a member of the People’s Tribunal, my purpose today is to raise these voices to the outside world, relieving somewhat their isolation and empowering, if only briefly, a great many people who face this man-made hunger.

Economic, Social and Cultural Rights require States to protect the natural resources, the labor and the freedom by which people obtain food.  Under no circumstances may a State hamper or endanger people’s capacity to produce or access food.  The right to food applies universally, without exceptions for armed conflict or perceived threats to State security.

In Myanmar, however, the State fails these obligations in many ways, especially through military action and counter-insurgency measures. The People’s Tribunal wishes to highlight several causes of food scarcity in Myanmar.

In the name of national security, the army burns food and crops, displaces civilians and relocates communities to areas unfit for sustaining livelihood.  The military makes persistent, onerous demands for rice, foodstuffs, materials and labor.  People flee to the forests without a reliable food supply, proper housing or health care.  Hunger, illness and death ensue.  “My children suffered from diarrhea and malaria,” testified one mother, “so before we reached the point of starvation, we fled to this refugee camp.”

The State consistently and consciously violates the right to work. As documented by the ILO, the State conscripts unpaid labor to serve public projects including roads, dams, canals and plantations.  In the pointed words of one farmer impoverished by forced labor, “How long could you survive without any income and no time to work?”

Expansion of farmland, rice export and compulsory paddy sales all deprive farmers of the food they grow and wish to eat.  These economic policies, enforced through the systemic violation of basic rights and freedoms, compound food scarcity rather than alleviate it. The results are malnutrition, refugees, migrant labor and, most of all, abject poverty.

Already serious, food scarcity could reach a crisis level.  The Tribunal therefore recommends that all parties involved in Myanmar’s armed conflict recognize that food, crops, and farmland are not legitimate military targets.  People displaced by conflict, including refugees, must be permitted to return home and resume subsistence farming, unfettered by forced labor and arbitrary taxation.

Food security must take precedence over rice exports and growth in GDP, specious indicators of economic progress which belie Myanmar’s daily hunger.  Lastly, the international community and the United Nations must work with the people of Myanmar to resolve their conflicts and promote food security, subsistence agriculture and more democratic relations between farmers and the State.

The world has immense resources and goodwill to share with Myanmar’s hungry.  Our challenge is to understand the complexities they face and to hasten the bright future they deserve.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.


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The Asian Legal Resource Centre (ALRC) works towards the radical rethinking & fundamental redesigning of justice institutions in Asia, to ensure relief and redress for victims of human rights violations, as per Common Article 2 of the International Conventions. Sister organisation to the Asian Human Rights Commission, the ALRC is based in Hong Kong & holds general consultative status with the Economic & Social Council of the United Nations.

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