Wed 29 Jun 2011
Filed under: Business / Trade
The Voice Weekly online, a news journal in Burma, reported in its June 16 issue that President Thein Sein has established model farms for agriculture and animal husbandry, and has, in fact, been conducting his own research by tilling the soil by hand.
“Even though he is a president, he worked on the farm,” The Voice quoted Thein Aung, the Prime Minister of Irrawaddy Region, as saying at a ceremony. “Based on his findings, he laid down guidelines on how to improve the farmers’ situation.”
Days after his inauguration as president, Thein Sein formed an advisory board consisting of three committees—political, economic and legal—for his new government. He also formed an anti-poverty committee with economists and assigned them to collect related papers and organize discussions.
“The agricultural sector is the key to Burma’s economic structure. A good agricultural foundation will benefit the country,” wrote economist Dr. U Myint, the current head of the President’s Economic Advisory Committee, in his paper regarding anti-poverty programs.
In official speeches, Thein Sein said he will prioritize the farming sector as over 70 percent of the country’s population are farmers, and agricultural loans will be given out to farmers at low interest rates.
Many farmers, however, have said that although the Myanmar Agricultural Development Bank, which is under control of the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, has offered more loans than in previous years, lower level staff and local authorities often deny farmers loans for petty or often trivial reasons.
“I had to sign for a 70,000-kyat [US $90] loan, but I was only given 50,000 kyat [$64],” said a farmer from Shwenyoma Village in Kyaukpyu Township in Arakan State. “When I asked about the rest of my loan, I was told that I had to give it as commission to the township authorities and the bank manager.”
In particular, farmers in cyclone-affected areas of Irrawaddy Division and Arakan State have reportedly encountered bureaucratic hurdles when applying for agricultural loans from the government.
In first first presidential address to parliament on March 30, Thein Sein called for a “clean” government.
“The most important task of the new administration is to work together to create good governance and clean government,” Thein Sein was reported as saying by The New Light of Myanmar, a state-run newspaper.
However, since the new government was sworn in, bribery and illegal taxation have reportedly increased across the country.
“Responsible persons at different levels [of government] need to practice their performances in accordance with the president’s speech,” said Ba Shin, an elected MP representing the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) in Kyaukpyu. “Because bribery and forced taxation is on the increase at township and village levels these days.”
A legislator in Naypyidaw, who is a member of the new parliament’s bill-drafting committee, told The Irrawaddy that the ongoing parliamentary sessions in the capital have touched on farmers’ affairs, but no effective action has come of it.
“Discussions on agriculture-related issues took place in the parliament, but legislators were not allowed to speak about the real needs and difficulties,” said the parliamentarian who requested anonymity.
Nay Myo Wai, the chairman of the Peace and Diversity Party, said he shared a similar view.
“Some laws related to farmers need to be amended, but I haven’t heard any discussion about them in the current parliamentary meetings,” he said. “The new parliament is quiet and not dissimilar from the one during the era of the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League in the 1940s.”
Khin Su Su Aung, a party candidate for the National Democratic Front who contested the election last November in Irrawaddy’s Bogale Township, said farmers in the Delta areas have had to endure land confiscations carried out by the local Forest and Land Records Department, as well as being subject to manipulation and exploitation by their village headmen.
“There are many farmers whose lands were confiscated by the Forest Department at the time loans were being offered. More and more farmers are in big trouble now,” she said.
Many farmers from Cyclone Nargis-affected areas in the delta told The Irrawaddy that although agricultural loans have been available for several weeks now, they are not sufficient to meet the farmers’ needs for rice cultivation.
Consequently, although rice season has arrived, many farmers are not sowing a crop this year.
“No matter how many acres of farmland we own, each of us received only 200,000 kyat [$255] on loan,” said Win Maung, a local farmer from Poenyo Village in Bogale. “We have to spend about 95,000 kyat [$121] per acre. Out of the loan, about 7,000 kyat [$9] was deducted to cover administration costs.”
He said most of the farmers in Nargis-affected areas own at least 10 acres of farmland and the current financial predicament was leading to a heavy impact on rice production and quality.
Local farmers in Tharyawaddy District in western Pegu Division also said that those who wanted agricultural loans had to bribe their village heads and other authorities.
Dr U Myint, however, said the huge recovery costs for shelters and livelihoods in Nargis-affected areas reinforce the fact that many people are in need of loans and, therefore, the government should pay particular attention to ensure that these farmers receive agricultural loans.
He wrote in his paper that the government should prioritize its incentives to farmers, offering consistent agricultural loans couple with systematic procedures whereby farmers can pay off their loans and help to improve Burma’s farming sector and rice production.
Apart from governmental support, he said, the private sector, social organizations and non-governmental organizations also need to participate in these endeavors.
He also said that governmental assistance to farmers had lessened since Burma declared independence. The country exported 3.3 million tonnes of rice in 1938-39, the highest amount of exports in the world at that time. However, the amount of rice export in 2007-08 had declined to just over 300,000 tonnes, the economist said.