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Bug Problems Hurting Myanmar's Dream

Agriculture: Despite some successes, infestation clouds impoverished nation's aim to be rice bowl of Asia.


HLEGU, Myanmar — Tiny, ravenous bugs are nibbling at the dream of Myanmar's military rulers to turn their impoverished country back into the great rice bowl of Asia.

Attacks by the lesser grain borer and grain moth have wiped out as much as 85% of the rice in storage, alarming farmers who have not faced such infestations in their lifetimes.

With farm exports the biggest revenue earner for the state, the World Bank and others say success in agriculture is the key for pulling Myanmar from the ranks of the world's poorest nations.

Severe problems could also shake the military's control. Rice shortages and rural unrest preceded the 1988 pro-democracy uprising that the army crushed with brutality, installing the current junta.

Still, despite the insect infestation and other problems, the regime has scored successes in agriculture.

Small tractors for plowing rice paddies, bicycles and surplus cash have replaced wooden plows, bare feet and a hand-to-mouth existence in some areas.

"The farmers are much happier now. Some even own televisions and cassette players. Before they only owned cows," said Kyaw Kyaw, a rice broker in Hlegu, a rural community 20 miles north of Rangoon, the capital.

But the generals face trouble in the countryside, home to nearly three-quarters of the nation's 46 million people.

Rice exports have plunged and the government has not been able to meet 500,000 tons in foreign orders since early last year. Farmers, especially in poorer regions, chafe at forced sales to the government while others fall into debt and lose their land.

Agriculture also suffers from a general ill: Government ministries trying to tackle ambitious projects are being staffed with retired military officers and the poorly qualified. The able few quit for far more lucrative private sector jobs.

Thus, Western analysts say, officials are hard put to cope with calamities like the insect plague.

To contain the marauders--their extent is not accurately known--farmers must fumigate their harvests and store them in special bins that most cannot afford. Those interviewed said the government has only promised them some pesticides.

The infestations are believed caused by a push to plant two, even three rice crops a year. With only a single crop, insects would die off from hunger. Now, they can move from one rice crop to another, and the drying machinery, pesticides and special storage bins used in developed countries to stop them are not available.

"They're going against nature without the hardware you need to do that," said Wayne Cartwright of the U.N. World Food Program.

The junta has been almost obsessive about agriculture. The official media is filled with reports of new dams and plans to extract two crops on a third of the country's 14.8 million acres of rice fields.

The potential is there. Myanmar is a farmer's dream--just about anything can spring from its fertile, well-watered soils. And as other Asian nations industrialize, Myanmar could be in the ideal position to make up their agricultural shortfalls.

It exported 1 million tons of rice in the fiscal year ending March 31, 1995, but shipments fell to 400,000 tons the following 12 months. The goal is 3 million tons a year, something the then British colony managed in the 1920s when it was the world's top rice exporter.

The military regime has moved well away from the central planning of recent decades when farmers were robbed of all incentive by having to sell their harvests to the state at low prices.

But the World Bank says the government has not gone far enough.

The regime maintains a monopoly on rice exports, designates land to be sown with rice and has the right to buy from farmers at least 12 baskets of unhusked rice per acre at an artificially low price. Yields generally range from 50 to 80 baskets per acre.

The levy may not burden farmers in rice surplus areas, but there are increasing reports of hardships from poorer communities. In some cases, farmers in poor areas are forced to labor on government projects to "work off" unfulfilled quotas.

Tensions also are reported because some farmers want to switch to beans and other crops not subject to regulation, but the government keeps them in rice, its prime source of revenue.

Some 7,000 agriculture supervisors are scattered around the countryside, but in remote areas they may be bribed by farmers who switch to non-regulated crops. This could account for the recent decline in rice production.

"The overall situation for rural people is in decline rather than improvement," Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of Myanmar's democracy movement, said in an interview. "I suppose they've built a thing or two, but what does that mean?"

One Rangoon-based Western analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, painted a more complex picture: "Farmers are mostly better off, but the 'opportunity costs' of being prevented from doing what they want to do causes discontent."

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