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    Southeast Asia
     Aug 23, 2007
Page 2 of 2
Seedlings of evil growing in Myanmar
By Clifford McCoy

seems to be influenced by Chinese methods, which promote hybrid rice as a cure-all for raising rice yields in any environment or location. This is despite statistical evidence that hybrid rice only brings modest increases in yields.

According to the January edition of Seedling, published by an organization advocating farmer-led agriculture initiatives, the increased yields fall far short of the additional costs involved in

growing the hybrid rice. The article describes the dissatisfaction of many Chinese farmers with hybrid rice and how little technological support was provided. Following the Chinese model of forcing agricultural policies on its farmers, the SPDC has promoted the cultivation of hybrid rice from China with a vengeance.

Not only is the rice being used in the New Destiny crop-substitution program, but farmers who have never grown opium are also ordered to grow sinn shweli rice, often under the threat of having their land confiscated. In addition, the Myanmar army, national police force and local government ministries and departments all have fields for growing the rice. Ceasefire and militia groups are also active in encouraging the farmers in their areas to grow the rice. Almost all of the rice is slated for the export market to China, even as local communities suffer a declining standard of living.

Military gains
The SPDC's enthusiasm for the rice is apparently both a result of a desire to increase agriculture exports to China and enrich the personal business interests of the officials and military officers involved in the trade. Agriculture contributes 50.1% of Myanmar's national economy, and rice has been designated a "principal national crop" by the SPDC. The military regime has repeatedly said it wants to raise the output of rice for food self-sufficiency.

It is also eager to export more rice to earn foreign currency. In an article last month in the Myanmar Times, Lieutenant-General Myint Swe of the Ministry of Defense's Bureau of Special Operations claimed that Myanmar produced 30.6 million tonnes of rice from 8.14 million hectares during the 2006-07 growing year and has a targeted output of 31.5 million tonnes from 8.2 million hectares in 2007-08. Myanmar exported 180,000 tonnes of rice in 2005-06 and 13,200 from April to September 2006, the latest available statistics.

In northern Shan state, the importation and sale of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and farm machinery is tightly controlled by Chinese businessmen or militia and ceasefire group leaders and members affiliated with the SPDC. Farmers, on the other hand, have very little choice but to buy from these local companies, which through virtual monopoly power control the market price and distribution of farming inputs.

A case in point is the fertilizer and pesticides that hybrid rice requires. The SPDC only permits certain fertilizers and pesticides to be sold legally in the country. Prices for fertilizer have increased hugely in the past 10 years; a 50-kilogram sack of fertilizer that cost 6,000 kyat is now 30,000 kyat. Many farmers try to get around buying the high-priced legal fertilizers and pesticides by buying illegally imported ones, which often cost half as much.

The catch: the companies that import the legal fertilizers and pesticides are the same firms that import the "illegal" ones, for which they set the prices on both markets. The three main companies involved in importing fertilizer in northern Shan state are the politically connected Awba Co, Diamond Star Co and Golden Lion Co.

Meanwhile, the main market for sinn shweli rice is China, with much of the rice exported through the special economic zone at Muse, just across the Myanmar border from the Chinese town of Ruili. Chinese traders are involved in every step of the production of sinn shweli rice, apart from the actual growing of the product. They are also the main buyers, invariably owning the trucks and distribution companies that sell the rice to traders inside China.

According to Hkun Seng, farmers who cannot afford to pay off their debts incurred from the now higher costs of growing sinn shweli rice often end up selling their land to the same Chinese companies that sell the farming inputs. The companies then frequently turn the land into commercial rice farms. The overt and exploitative involvement of Chinese traders and the growing loss of land to Chinese business people is stoking anti-Chinese friction among certain ethnic-minority groups, researchers say.

SPDC officials and army officers in northern Shan state are also getting their cut from the transactions. The new commander of the Northeast Command, Major-General Aung Than Htun, who acts as the military governor of northern Shan state, is charged with issuing business permits to Chinese companies involved in the importation of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and farming machinery, as well as for companies involved in commercial farming and the export of rice to China.

Chinese companies also reportedly "donate" 2 hectares of land to the military or government departments when they purchase land from indebted local farmers. The army and the local government then use the acquired land to grow their own crops of sinn shweli rice, which is then sold back to the Chinese merchants.

All in all, it's a state-sanctioned scheme that in the name of curbing opium cultivation is simultaneously making the region's already impoverished ethnic-minority groups even poorer and accelerating Chinese economic control over Myanmar's increasingly Sinified northern territories.

Clifford McCoy is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist.

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