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13 Jul 2024 19:27
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  •   Home > News > International

    Punks among grassroot groups providing hope as millions struggle with hunger in Myanmar

    Food insecurity is rising sharply in Myanmar, prompting community volunteers to raise donations and share their own resources to help others survive.


    Breakfast in Myanmar traditionally consists of a bowl of catfish soup, crunchy fritters, and a cup of sweet tea at a local tea shop.

    But in the country's biggest city Yangon, it's a daily ritual many are struggling to afford as food prices skyrocket.

    Before the military junta seized power three years ago, there was a sense of optimism in Myanmar.

    Under Aung San Suu Kyi's democratically elected government, the country had seen an influx of foreign investment.

    Since the coup triggered a renewed insurgency by armed ethnic organisations and pro-democracy forces, Myanmar's economy has crumbled leading to rampant inflation and energy shortages.

    The cost of a basket of food staples in Myanmar for one person for a month – including rice, oil, beans, and salt — has nearly quadrupled since January 2021, rising by around 270 per cent from $9 to $33.

    In rural areas, where the fighting has intensified since last year, food insecurity is reaching crisis levels. 

    But amid these dire circumstances, grassroots groups are stepping up to help the vulnerable.

    Punks lend a hand 

    Providing a lifeline for the most vulnerable in Yangon is the organisation Food Not Bombs led locally by Kyaw Kyaw, a singer of the punk band Rebel Riot.

    Every Saturday, Kyaw Kyaw with other punks and volunteers set up an open-air kitchen on the street to cook 400 to 500 meals.

    "If we prepare some food, families can save money for other needs like school or medication," he said.

    The punk subculture has long had an association with community activism in Myanmar.

    Rebel Riot formed in 2007 amid what became known as the Saffron Revolution, during which protesting citizens and monks were violently repressed by the military regime. 

    Kyaw Kyaw said he felt like history was repeating itself, watching the military's brutal tactics against civilians since the coup.

    "Most people have no hope and feel depressed," Kyaw Kyaw told the ABC.

    His band recently wrote a new song Don't Become a Fascist expressing their anger at the military takeover.

    He said he finds it hard to stay positive watching the mounting death toll but tries to focus each week on offering food and a moment of relief.

    "This food gives a bit of hope in these tough times."

    People 'sharing what little they have'

    According to the latest Hunger Hotspots report, 13.3 million people — 24 per cent of Myanmar's population — were expected to be facing "high levels of acute food insecurity" between June and August including 2.7 million people in "emergency". 

    "Around 428,000 children are projected to be acutely malnourished in 2024, a 54 per cent increase compared to 2023," the World Food Program (WFP) and Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report said. 

    "Humanitarian response is facing extreme constraints due to fighting and limited access."

    Youth activist Thinzar Shunlei Yi said a growing number of desperate parents were sending their children to monastic schools to become nuns and monks so they could at least receive a daily meal of rice.

    "People are barely surviving, they are sharing what little they have," she told the ABC.

    San Win, a local teacher, told the ABC he had noticed more child labour in tea shops.

    "It's not because of bad parenting," he said.

    "Children want to help their families, because prices are very high due to expensive petrol and imported goods."

    Guillaume de Langre, an energy expert who previously advised the government, said the military's catastrophic economic policies had also led to an acute energy shortage.

    "The military has shown they have no real clue how to grow the economy," he told the ABC.

    Su Myat, a resident in Yangon's industrial zone, said locals planned around a rotating power outage schedule of four hours on and four hours off to ease transmission system pressure.

    She said factory workers complained about the stifling heat during power cuts and big blue drums to store water lined the streets, for when the power outages halted water pumps.

    "We run to the water truck with buckets each morning before the power goes out," said Su Myat.

    She said she used to visit food stalls in the evenings, but there were now fewer on her street as rising fuel costs crippled small businesses.

    "Everyone is struggling with inflation, worried about having enough to buy food," she said.

    "People are panic buying gold because they are worried about our currency and the future."

    Resilient grassroots efforts 

    Teacher Naw Zember Paw recently started a Food Not Bombs chapter growing vegetables to distribute to displaced people in Kayah State, also known as Karenni State.

    "People run for their lives, scavenging for food in the forest," she told the ABC.

    After she finishes teaching each day she drives to areas where people are camping after fleeing their homes to deliver food donations.

    She's particularly worried about children and newborns not getting enough food.

    Recently, she broke down after trying to assist a mother who had fled on foot with twins and was struggling with breastfeeding.

    "One baby had a deep cry," she said, bursting into tears as she recounted the story to the ABC.

    She has returned several times to visit the mother to deliver food and baby formula.

    Paolo Mattei, World Food Programme (WFP) Myanmar acting director, said the agency was struggling to deliver food rations due to military roadblocks and the intensifying conflict in Kayah State had put their aid workers' lives at risk.

    "We don't see the light at the end of the tunnel," Mr Mattei told the ABC.

    "There are more serious challenges to move food from one region to another."

    Many former farmers were relying on food aid because they were forced to flee and leave their farms when fighting erupted. 

    The military blocks lifesaving aid 

    It's not just food that has been blocked, other humanitarian groups such as Doctors without Borders (MSF) have been denied permission to provide medicines to internally displaced persons camps by the Myanmar military in ethnic regions including Rakhine State.

    "Pregnant women or people with acute diarrhoea can't reach healthcare, and that can result in an increase in deaths," said MSF project coordinator Elko Brummelman.

    In response to the escalating crisis, ordinary citizens like Nway Oo have moved from Yangon to rural areas to use their nursing skills and become first responders on the front line.

    He works with limited donations and delivers aid on foot, treating ailments such as skin lesions caused by contaminated water and poor hygiene.

    "I got my first big shock when a soldier arrived and both his legs were gone and bombs kept falling on us." 

    His worst day was recovering his friend's decapitated body after a military aerial attack.

    "Even if I make it through checkpoints, the pharmacies in cities don't have enough supplies or they may be expired because of electricity blackouts and lack of refrigeration," he said.  

    Despite facing immense challenges, Nway Oo remains committed to providing food and medical care for displaced people.

    "I come across people who have walked for days with no food and only dirty water," he said.

    "Although we are struggling we are all together in the resistance against the military."

    © 2024 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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