Yu Yu Htay discusses food weaponization and how the state of food production in post-coup Myanmar is leading to domestic hunger and undermining the regional food basket.
Conflict and food insecurity are intertwined: when one takes place, the other one usually follows. Several economic, environmental, political, or religious factors underlie armed conflicts. Every armed conflict bears tremendous human and environmental costs, but disruptions to food production and supply are often felt most immediately, with significant repercussions and flow-on effects. It is common that conflict-affected populations experience persistent hunger in the post-conflict setting as it takes time to reconstruct basic infrastructures, such as irrigation systems, roads, and marketplaces needed for the agricultural sector to operate.
When a civil war sparks between two or more warring parties, it has direct and indirect impacts on food and economic insecurity as well as environmental destruction. In Myanmar, opposing nationalisms, a fight for self-determination, and struggles over ethnic identity prolonged a civil war. The government brought to power by a military coup was characterized by its corrupt ruling regime, a lack of power-sharing, centralized political administration, and an ineffective constitution—all factors leading to the emergence of a civil war. The dominant warring party, the Myanmar military (Sit-Tat/Tatmadaw) seized land and controlled food to weaken opposition forces, especially culturally and politically marginalized groups. Deploying ‘scorched earth’ tactics are deliberately used in such wars. In a conflict state such as Myanmar, the sharp decline in food production is a result of the destruction of rural infrastructure, loss of livestock, deforestation, and the use of landmines and displacement. Consequently, countries heavily reliant on food exports from Myanmar are most vulnerable to this impact.
Myanmar, a resource-rich and ethnically diverse country, has one of the longest civil wars in the world. Many ethnic groups have been fighting for self-determination since independence in 1948. The country experienced several military coups and was under authoritarian regimes. In 2010, it embarked on a political transition where a series of reforms were launched under a quasi-civilian government. In 2016, Myanmar had its first civilian government. Unfortunately, those days were short-lived and followed by a military coup took place in February 2021.
Myanmar is an agricultural-based country. The sector employs 70% of the rural population, and farmers play an important role in state-making. Their livelihoods, similarly, are the engine driving growth for rural development. Myanmar is also a major food supplier for neighbouring countries such as China, Thailand, Bangladesh and India.
There has been considerable resistance to Myanmar’s military in the months since the coup. Civilians took to the street in mass protests and stopped using government facilities and services. Schools were shut down, and government servants joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM). Boycotts were implemented against the military and military-back businesses. The international community also imposed targeted sanctions in response to the coup. Following a series of events, the economic, health, and financial sectors came close to collapse and unemployment surged. Myanmar’s youth or ‘Generation Z’ took up arms and established the People’s Defense Force (PDF) to uproot the junta regime.
This article discusses how the junta weaponizes food to weaken pro-democracy forces, deploying ‘scorched earth’ tactics to cause a sharp decline in food production, resulting in local starvation and threatening the regional food supply system. First, I explore the food supply chain mechanism in Myanmar. I highlight how policies related to food are developed in favour of generating government revenue, and at the expense of farmers’ welfare. Second, the article discusses the impact of the current country-wide conflict on hunger, specifically the way the junta uses food as a weapon against its opposition. Third, it looks at the state of food production in Myanmar and its impact on regional food security. I conclude by sharing some thoughts on how regional partners should hold the State Administration Council (SAC) accountable for atrocities committed.
Myanmar’s food supply system has always been tightly controlled by the state. Land and agricultural policies have long determined farmers’ welfare and food accessibility. Burma’s first military coup in 1962, led by Ne Win, introduced the ‘Burmese Way to Socialism.’ Under the socialist system, farmers were forced to sell their farm products at low government-set prices as the government wanted to gain foreign exchange reserves through rice exports. As a result, farmers could not boost productivity, let alone scrape by for their own survival. This form of political intervention pushed them to sell rice on the black market. As food prices skyrocketed, village populations fell into extreme poverty. Due to the miscalculated economic strategy of the Ne Win government, Myanmar encountered economic stagnation and landed in the Least Developed Country list by 1987. The food crisis contributed to an uprising in 1988—this mass protest was brutally cracked down by General Than Shwe, the then-leader of the State Peace Development Council (SPDC).
The SPDC introduced the “Burmese Way to Capitalism” to recover the economy. Under this system, farmers were forced to take credit, which they paid back in the form of fixed portions of rice. This system ultimately trapped farmers in cycles of debt. Consequently, there was a sharp decline in purchasing power. People in hilly regions, such as Bago Yoma range, Shan Plateau and Arakan Yoma range, suffered the most as they had no alternative livelihoods. The State continued to control the food supply system, which suffered from major deficiencies in the distribution of food and further exacerbated political instability.
Ethnic conflict and oppression smouldered for years in various parts of the country. Fast forward to 2010, with a vision to hold nationwide ceasefire talks, the military-backed quasi-civilian government introduced a series of reforms, including the controversial Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) law. Many farmlands were officially seized under the pro-business FDI law. Against a backdrop of a decades-long civil war and lack of concrete political settlements with ethnic groups, many issues remained unsolved under the 2016 elected government.
When the coup took place in February 2021, in a speech delivered in January 2022 by SAC Chairman Min Aung Hlaing, the idea of exporting rice to earn foreign income was once again put on the table. He impressed that “efforts must be made to achieve success in the yield of 100 baskets of paddy per acre. If so, paddy rice can be exported to earn foreign income. Local farmers will have increased income which will contribute to the better local circulation of money.”
Drawing on examples from Myanmar’s history of state policies and practices in the food and agricultural sector, it’s clear that military regimes of the past have prioritized generating foreign income from the sale of rice and other agricultural products to serve their own profits, rather than fostering the welfare of people and farmers. Deploying a centralized approach to control the food supply chain, the military regime is positioning itself to further weaponize food against its opponents and ordinary citizens in a bid to remain in power.
The coup has threatened food security in urban and peripheral areas, albeit in different ways. The combination of inflation, skyrocketing food prices and Covid-19 threatens access to quality food for most urban and rural populations. In urban areas, food insecurity and the rising unemployment rate has also contributed to rising criminal activity. As the prices of commodities increased sharply, the SAC has allowed trade associations to sell subsidised cooking oil in urban areas like Yangon. The urban poor line up for long hours to buy supplies at a lower price. The military has forced people to struggle for survival, so much so that they do not have time to deal with politics.
In rural areas, organized crime committed by the military includes destroying crops, stealing livestock and confiscating civilian property to weaken revolutionary resistance. International emergency food providers are not permitted to reach the most vulnerable displaced populations. Moreover, the State Administration Council (SAC) has started to block transportation routes (e.g., to Rakhine, Chin,Magwe, Sagaing and Thanintharyi) where there is ongoing intense fighting and local people are experiencing a severe shortage of food supplies.
This is not the first time the junta has weaponized food to serve themselves. The notorious ‘Four Cuts’ policy was introduced in the 1960s to fight against the Communist Party of Burma (CBP) and Karen National Union (KNU). This policy cut off food supplies to ethnic armed groups, along with funds, news, and new recruits. Local people living in ethnic areas fighting for self-determination have borne the brunt of this policy, resulting in high mortality rates during the ‘Four Cuts’ campaign.
This pattern of starvation continues to persist. In 2008, in order not to let the world see the regime’s preparation for a national referendum, the Tatmadaw banned most international relief efforts from entering the country when Cyclone Nargis left a trail of devastation in its wake. The cyclone wiped out food reserves, and as the authorities failed to provide for survivors, the death toll reached an astounding 140,000 people. In 2017, the Tatmadaw cut off food supplies to conflict-affected marginalized Rohingya communities. This was carried out by the state with the intention to starve particular ethnic groups, and under the Rome Statutes of the International Criminal Court, it is considered a ‘crime against humanity’ and an act of genocide.
According to data for Myanmar (D4M) from 25 August 2022, a total of 28,434 houses were burned down by the military junta. A majority of casualties are located in Sagaing and Magway—both important hubs for the production of pulses and other food crops. The impact of this attack, once again, drove a sharp decline in production. These atrocities displaced farmers and transformed paddy fields into battlefields. As armed conflict breaks out across the country, there is no doubt that the whole supply chain has been severely disrupted.
Food trade patterns directly correlate to the domestic food supply in various export countries. As Myanmar is a major exporter of rice to China and dried leguminous vegetables (DLV) to India, disruptions in trade also threaten those who rely on its supply to meet domestic consumption. The India-Myanmar border trade was supposed to resume after two years of Covid-19 restrictions, with many traders welcoming the opening of the border as it reduced smuggling activities in the borderlands. However, traders face great security concerns over trade routes as fighting intensifies in Myanmar’s border regions (such as Sagaing, where Kalay and Tamu towns are located). People fear that if the border opening is put off till 2023, this will have a negative impact on essential food supplies in India. Due to a lack of transparency and accountability during oppressive military regimes in the past, the data for exports of goods and services from Myanmar has remained undocumented. According to food trade data available from 2000 onwards, there has been a steady increase in demand for food products from Myanmar destined for China, Cambodia, India, Thailand, and other countries. It is important to note that the credibility of the data is hard to assess since it has been managed by different government administrations over the years.
Historical and contemporary examples from Myanmar demonstrate that various military regimes have consistently weaponized food to achieve their political agendas. Today, the junta continues to overlook the food insecurity challenges civilians face in the country. Controlling the profits of rice exports, the regime prioritizes generating foreign income to consolidate its own power. There is another way to interpret the trade deals between the junta and neighbouring countries: the junta is attempting to develop a niche market and control larger supply chains, thereby forging cooperation with like-minded allies to gain support and legitimacy.
If regional counterparts are serious about addressing the rapid onset of food insecurity, they must acknowledge the root causes of today’s political crisis. Prolonged hostilities not only drive domestic hunger but also undermine regional food security, especially in countries reliant upon Myanmar’s agricultural products. Therefore, regional counterparts should make all possible efforts to restore basic human rights and stability in Myanmar and enhance collaboration with governments that are finding ways to end the vicious cycle of hunger and war.
(Featured image by CCFoodtravel.com, from Flickr Creative Commons)
Yu Yu Htay is a development practitioner from Burma with experience in IDPs’ issues, public health, food security and livelihood, and transboundary water governance. She holds MSc. Violence, Conflict, and Development from SOAS, University of London.