The UN World Food Programme’s country director for Myanmar has warned that civil unrest and growing economic paralysis risk pushing people in one of Asia’s poorest countries into hunger.

Stephen Anderson said that while the south-east Asian country was a rice exporter, prices for food staples, fuel, and fertiliser were starting to rise because nationwide strikes and unrest were hitting supply chains, markets, and the banking system.

“It’s probably still too early to understand the full impact of the current political crisis on household food security,” Anderson told the Financial Times. “But the WFP as an organisation is increasingly concerned that if this situation protracts — if there is an extended period of civil unrest — it may drive many poor families into hunger.” 

His warning of growing food insecurity comes amid unrelenting violence by the regime against peaceful protesters opposed to Min Aung Hlaing’s military junta, which overthrew Aung San Suu Kyi’s government last month. Security forces killed at least 12 people on Saturday in Mandalay, Yangon, and elsewhere. 

Tens of thousands of government and private sector workers have been skipping work as part of a civil disobedience campaign. The strikes have crippled banking, logistics, transport and customs clearance, causing goods to pile up at ports, and prices of essentials such as rice, cooking oil and fuel to rise. 

Before the coup, many poor families were already struggling with reduced incomes because of the impact of Covid-19.

“We had been concerned about people in peri-urban areas, particularly of Yangon, who were falling through the cracks of the Covid socio-economic impact,” Anderson said. 

“Now we also have the near paralysis of the banking system, remittances appear to be declining or interrupted, and social protection support that had been provided also appears to be on hold.” 

The WFP official’s remarks point to a paradox of the civil disobedience movement: the strikes and protests of people demanding the restoration of democracy, meant to thwart the junta, are starting to hurt some of Myanmar’s most vulnerable people too.

Anderson said the WFP was monitoring these events as closely as it could but its priority remained its food support for about 360,000 people affected by long-running conflicts in several of Myanmar’s states.

An adviser to a leading charitable organisation said poorer people who had cut back on food consumption or took on debt after their incomes fell during the pandemic would now be hit by rising food prices too. 

“The threats to the supply of food are multiplying inside the country,” said the official, who asked not to be named because of the political sensitivities around the charity’s operations in Myanmar. “In addition to that, there is effectively a widespread reduced ability of people to buy food as well.” 

The unrest comes at a time when Myanmar’s farmers traditionally prepare for the next planting season. The charity adviser said this year they would face “a large amount of disruption” in securing or paying for seeds, fuel, and farm machinery, threatening the next harvest.

He said many households engaged in panic buying of food essentials in the first days after the coup, but: “Now people are hoarding money and eating less”. 

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