On April 20, Nhkum Bawk fled her village in Myanmar’s northernmost Kachin State as military air strikes fell. She has since passed nearly four months of sleepless nights on the floor of her tarpaulin-walled shelter in a church compound, thinking about her unplanted rice paddies and how her family of six will survive the coming year.
She is among more than 220,000 people across the country who have fled their homes amid armed conflict since a Feb. 1 military coup.
While the pandemic in Myanmar had already left farmers’ livelihoods in dire straits, causing food insecurity for the country’s 54 million citizens, the coup has pushed this crisis to a breaking point.
In April, citing increases in food and commodity prices, economic fallout, and displacement, the United Nations World Food Programme warned that in addition to the 2.8 million people considered food insecure before the coup, 3.4 million more could face hunger by October.
The rainy season, which lasts from May to October, is the time for planting rice. In areas of armed conflict, farmers’ inability to safely access their paddies and fields casts next year’s harvest into doubt.
As of 2015, around half of Myanmar’s population were farmers, and agriculture accounted for about one-third of the country’s GDP. The sector is largely made up of smallholder farmers who cultivate rice paddies for their survival.
“I have no idea when we will be able to plant again – I think only when the war is over and all the bombs and artillery shells are cleared,” Nhkum Bawk said. “I don’t even know how to describe my worries for the future.”
Five acres of rice paddy had provided just enough income for Nhkum Bawk’s family to meet their basic needs, until the coronavirus pandemic erased most of their earnings of approximately 120,000 kyats ($91) per month.
Globally, the pandemic pushed 161 million people toward hunger in 2020, according to the WFP, which estimated that in Myanmar, six in 10 households couldn’t afford a nutritious diet even before the pandemic, and around 80 per cent of households there reported income losses in 2020, averaging nearly half of their income.
The coup erased hopes that farmers could regain some of these losses in 2021. The World Bank forecast Myanmar’s economy to contract by 18 per cent this year, and reported that farmers have been affected by higher input expenses, lower wholesale prices for some crops and decreased access to credit amid banking sector disruptions.
But for those in areas of armed conflict, these issues are eclipsed by the locals’ inability to go safely to their farms at all.
The coup has rekindled or exacerbated fighting between the military and several of the country’s largest ethnic armed organizations, some of which had been fighting for decades along the country’s borders for self-determination and rights. Since the military began shooting unarmed protesters dead by the dozens in March, new civilian defence forces have also formed across the country, launching deadly attacks despite being vastly outgunned.
The military has responded to armed resistance since the coup with air and ground attacks and by cutting off food and supply routes to conflict-affected areas – tactics it has long used to cut off the support base of ethnic armed organizations. It has also curtailed humanitarian access and the transport of relief items; it has burned rice stockpiles, and shelled camps and churches where people sought shelter.
In July, a 55-year-old woman in Kachin State was found dead after passing a military encampment on the way to her rice farm in the conflict-torn Momauk Township. Her husband says soldiers raped and stabbed her to death. The military then released a statement that said that three soldiers accidentally killed her.
A week after Nhkum Bawk and her family fled their home, also in Momauk Township, her mother-in-law went back to lock the house and gather some necessary items. Artillery crashed through the house that night; her mother-in-law survived, but the family has not gone back since.
More than 11,000 people have been displaced since the coup in Kachin State alone, where fighting, following the collapse of a ceasefire between the Kachin Independence Organization and the military in 2011, had already left some 100,000 living in camps. Churches, which have long played a leading role in sheltering and supporting displaced people, are now struggling to meet the rapidly rising needs, according to local media reports.
But even though food is running out at the church where Nhkum Bawk has taken shelter, the situation in her township is too unpredictable for the family to risk returning, she told The Globe and Mail. Even if fighting slows, she said she would not dare to step foot on her farm because of the risk of unexploded weapons.
The situation is similarly grim in Mindat Township in Myanmar’s northwestern Chin State, where intense clashes between the military and civilian defence forces have been ongoing since April. Military air strikes and gunfire have caused thousands to flee their homes, most taking shelter in forests, on church compounds and in makeshift camps. Checkpoints line the roads in and out of town, leaving even those who didn’t flee afraid or unable to travel to their farms.
Many farmers in Mindat grow elephant foot yams, which they typically sell in nearby towns following a three-year growing period, using the income to buy rice and necessities for the year. But this year, the harvest, the market price and the farmers’ ability to reach the market are uncertain.
A farmer, who The Globe and Mail is not identifying because he feared being targeted by the military for speaking to the media, said that after being displaced in April, he went back and forth to his farm for more than a month to plant his yams, but he has not returned since June. “I was scared to stay because I heard that soldiers came to the farms and threatened the farmers,” he said.
Unable to tend to his crops, he worries that the yield will be poor if he can even make it back to his farm to harvest them. “It’s time to sell my yams, but because of the coup I couldn’t clear the weeds or go to the farm. We [farmers] are only focusing on our safety,” he said.
In southeastern Kayah State near the Thailand border, farmers also face a bleak year ahead. Since May, the military has responded to armed resistance from the newly formed Karenni People’s Defense Force with indiscriminate heavy-weapons attacks that have displaced 100,000.
Weeks before fighting erupted, Nya and her family had plowed their two acres of paddy fields in Loikaw Township, but their planting was disrupted on May 22, when they fled heavy fighting and hid in the mountains. At Nya’s request, The Globe and Mail has used only part of her name.
“Due to the coup, we couldn’t farm properly,” she said. “It is the best time to plant paddies, but we had to run.”
Although she returned to her village a month after fleeing, she has still not set foot on her farm on the village’s outskirts. She heard from other villagers that when they tried going back to their farms in late July, they encountered soldiers on the way and instead fled to the jungle.
“Our family fully depends on our rice and corn for food and income,” she said. “This year we couldn’t plant anything, so we will be in a very difficult situation next year ... We have no idea what we will eat.”
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