Myanmar: Chin State - a mountain of trouble

RONG LONG, 7 December 2009 (IRIN) - In the remote western Chin state, Ngite Pan, 46, ekes out an existence, feeding herself and her 15-year-old daughter by planting millet. Occasionally, she sells a traditional intoxicating brew called Khaung-Yay, also made from millet, which earns her about US$4 a month.

It is the widow's only source of income, and most of this money is spent on buying rice to supplement the millet - but it is not enough.

"Our main problem is getting enough food. There are many days in a year when we have to skip a meal," Ngite Pan said from her bamboo home in the isolated mountain village of Rong Long in the south. "We see no way out to escape these hardships."

Mountainous Chin, bordering India and Bangladesh, is Myanmar's poorest state. Some 70 percent of its population lives below the poverty line, rising to 81 percent in rural areas, according to UN agencies in Myanmar, compared with a third of the population in the country as a whole.

The Chin, numbering an estimated 500,000 in the state, with over half a million more in the rest of the country, make up about 1 percent of Myanmar's population.

They comprise six main ethnic groups, including the Asho, Cho, Khumi, Laimi, Mizo and Zomi, with dozens of sub-groups.

Access for aid workers is restricted and agencies say there is not enough basic data about the population, but that its problems are numerous.

Challenges include "structural deficiencies, chronic food shortages [and] widespread food insecurity", Christophe Reltien, Head of Office of the European Commission's Directorate General for Humanitarian Aid (ECHO), told IRIN.

For those unable to make a living off the land, a marginal livelihood can be made scavenging for timber or bamboo, cane resin, honey and orchids in steep, mountainous areas.

Acute food insecurity

Most of the population relies on shifting cultivation for their livelihoods. However, there are limited viable farmlands and growing population pressures, in turn leading to shorter field rotation cycles, poor soil fertility and crop yields, according to the World Food Programme (WFP).

Chronic food insecurity has been made worse by a rat infestation, which started in 2007 and is still destroying crops.

"The population of Chin State is vulnerable due to the rat infestation and a general decline in agricultural productivity, shortage of employment opportunities, low levels of education, poor water, poor sanitation and lack of road infrastructure," said a joint Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)/WFP crop and food security assessment published this year.

Because of the rat infestation, more than 100,000 people are estimated to need food aid, according to the Canada-based Chin Human Rights Organization (CHRO).

In a September 2009 report, CHRO found that up to 82 percent of farmland had been destroyed in certain regions, while more than 50 people died from the effects of extreme malnourishment, mostly children.

"People are going to the jungle and picking up roots and leaves and yams to eat. They eat food which in normal situations they would not eat. There are lots of health problems because of this," Salai Bawi Lian, CHRO's executive director, told IRIN in Bangkok.

Beyond the immediate food crisis, Salai Bawi Lian said the Chin needed help in moving away from shifting cultivation to more sustainable agriculture.

Rights violations

Rights groups say the state's population is vulnerable to rights abuses by the government's military, known as the Tatmadaw. A report by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in January documented instances of torture, arbitrary arrests and detention, and forced labour, although the government has outlawed the practice.

"Those called for labour are assigned to work on government projects without compensation or daily provisions and under threat of punishment," stated the report.

Myanmar is a majority Buddhist country but more than 80 percent of the people in Chin State are Christian, making them the target of discrimination, according to activists. Thousands of Chin have fled to Malaysia and to Mizoram state in India, where they share common ethnic ties, but still face insecurity and poverty.

Health and education lacking

A WFP survey of the food security situation in seven townships in May 2009 found that households were mainly concerned with food, health and education, but the majority were unable to afford these basic necessities and were forced to rely on loans.

According to the HRW report, there are only 12 hospitals, 56 doctors, and 128 nurses in the state. Some hard-to-reach villages complain that government health workers only visit twice a year.

Education is also lacking, with no universities in the state and 1,167 primary schools, 83 middle schools and 25 high schools.

"There is a dire lack of school facilities in many villages in Chin State, forcing Chin children to walk to distant towns and villages or pay expensive boarding fees to attend classes," said the State of the World's Minorities and Indigenous Peoples 2009 report by Minority Rights Group International.