Every day, a nagging fear gnaws at Abdul. He worries he won’t be able to provide for his wife and two children as food costs soar across Myanmar, four months after a military coup.
“Food prices have increased significantly since 1 February. They’ve been climbing every week,” said the 25-year-old Rohingya man, who requested the use of a pseudonym for fear of reprisals by Myanmar’s military junta, particularly because he belongs to a persecuted minority group.
The price of cooking oil has doubled in his home in northern Rakhine State, near the border with Bangladesh. “My first and biggest worry is: If they keep rising, how do we feed ourselves?” Abdul said.
Minority groups in the country’s border regions face a looming food crisis months after Myanmar’s military seized power, local aid workers and residents told The New Humanitarian.
Prices of staple foods have gone up nationwide, driven by instability and conflict, cash shortages, and rising transportation costs. There are fears food shortfalls could extend into next year as well, if displaced farmers miss the chance to plant crops during the current monsoon season, which runs from June to October.
The rainy season is likely to put further pressure on prices in border and conflict-hit areas, where infrastructure is poor and roads are often impassable after heavy downpours.
The UN’s World Food Programme warns that up to 3.4 million more people could go hungry in the coming months due to the economic disruption caused by the political crisis – on top of 2.8 million people considered food insecure before the coup. The COVID-19 pandemic had already caused devastating job losses and reversed long-term poverty declines.
“My first and biggest worry is: If they keep rising, how do we feed ourselves?”
The situation is particularly dire in areas predominantly inhabited by ethnic minority groups, because food insecurity has historically been high due to long-standing conflicts and inequality.
A post-coup surge in clashes between the junta and its foes – ethnic armed groups and recently established local militias opposing the coup – has forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, adding to the more than 330,000 already displaced from previous conflicts.
While commodity prices have jumped nationwide, humanitarian needs and food fears are especially urgent among people displaced in new fighting since the coup.
In southeast Myanmar, for example, clashes between the military and ethnic armed groups in parts of Karen State and Bago region have uprooted at least 51,000 people. Villagers have fled airstrikes and mortar fire, and monsoon season storms have also caused damage. Since late May, tens of thousands of civilians in Kayah State, formerly known as Karenni, have also been forced to flee, the UN reports.
They are living in makeshift shelters unsuitable for the monsoon, residents are struggling to feed both themselves and the new arrivals, and intensified fighting is putting everyone in the area at risk, a person familiar with the situation told The New Humanitarian.
“The [displaced people] wanted to harvest their crops during the day, but the army threatened to shoot them if they came back to their farms,” she said.
The army is scrutinising people’s purchases, so buying goods to donate is a challenge even without the higher prices, which rose in tandem with cash shortages, she said: “People can no longer eat like they did before. Instead of each person getting a whole packet of noodles, now the whole household may share one or two.”
In Chin State in Myanmar’s northwest, some 10,000 people fled the town of Mindat, where the army and the newly formed Chinland Defence Force fought for several days in mid-May.
“The [displaced people] wanted to harvest their crops during the day, but the army threatened to shoot them if they came back to their farms.”
A majority of displaced people in camps dotted around the town are elderly or children, and it is difficult to find suitable food, said Salai Shin Tun, a senior member of the Chin National League for Democracy political party.
“Nearby villages have been helping us with whatever they have, but if we continue like this, I don’t think the food we have will last us even a month,” he said.
Salai Shin Tun, who is also in hiding, fears people will have to sneak home when their food supplies are low, putting them at risk of being caught by the military.
“There are a lot of people in Myanmar who want to support us, but there’s little we can do because everything is blocked,” he said. “Meanwhile, prices keep rising.”
Coping with food shortfalls
Instability, threats against aid workers, and military restrictions on aid continue to hamper humanitarian access. But aid groups are also struggling with a cash crunch caused by nationwide currency shortages.
“For us, the biggest issue is access to money. There are organisations willing to help us… but we can’t withdraw the cash,” said Mary Tawn, founder and executive director of Wunpawng Ninghtoi, set up a decade ago to help displaced people in Kachin.
Under normal circumstances, people in Kachin’s border areas earn money from working in China, or in the paddy fields for the April-to-May harvest season.
However, the border has largely been closed during the pandemic, and clashes between the military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) have escalated since mid-March. More people are suddenly out of work, yet the value of people’s savings is dropping because the Myanmar currency has depreciated by up to 30 percent against the commonly used Chinese Yuan, Tawn said.
This is affecting people’s nutrition levels, she added, recounting how a baby was recently born with birth defects. She attributes this to folic acid deficiency, which can be caused by a diet short on fresh fruits and leafy green vegetables.
Meanwhile, bamboo and plywood shelters, and schools built for displaced people a decade ago – when a shattered ceasefire pushed some 100,000 to flee – are in need of urgent repair. “They won’t survive this monsoon,” Tawn said.
“You can hear gunfire and heavy artillery fire every day. Everyone has dug bunkers in their homes.”
There are also food fears in northern Shan State’s Kutkai township, where prices are soaring and fighting keeps farmers from their fields.
“Because we are situated in the mountains, we have to buy basic food staples brought in from central Myanmar, and the prices have doubled or tripled,” said Mai Mai, an aid worker with a local civil society group. “People are really struggling. I’ve been begging local donors to send basic foodstuffs.”
Fighting among rival armed groups, and between the KIA, its allies, and the military, have displaced some 15,000 people in northern Shan since the start of the year – more than 8,000 are still homeless – and clashes have escalated over the last two months.
The planting season has arrived, but fighting prevents people from going to their farms to bring in much-needed income, Mai Mai said.
In addition, people resettled as part of controversial government plans to dismantle camps before the COVID-19 pandemic hit now need even more help, including food aid, she added.
“Life is also difficult for ordinary people in the town,” Mai Mai said. “You can hear gunfire and heavy artillery fire every day. Everyone has dug bunkers in their homes.”
Food worries stretch across the country and its border regions, even in areas that haven’t seen new conflict since the coup.
In the Naga Self-Administered Zone, which borders India, prices for essential commodities are “skyrocketing”, said a youth leader, who asked not to be named.
A rodent plague slashed harvests in recent years, and people in the remote and heavily militarised area are preparing for more hardship. “During my visits to villages these days, some said they have to mostly depend on what is at their disposal and reduce purchases, as cash flow is limited,” the youth leader said.
Rakhine State, parts of which saw some of Myanmar’s worst violence before the coup, has not had any major displacement since late 2020. But rising prices and stagnant income are still forcing many to cut back, said a Rohingya man, who also asked not to be identified.
“I myself have reduced how much I eat because my income is limited, but the price of everything is getting higher and higher,” he said.