WA Today: Flower that leads to famine

Flower that leads to famine

by Jewel Topsfield

WA Today

February 20, 2009

ONCE every 50 years a species of bamboo flowers in the Burmese state of Chin, heralding the beginning of a famine.

This sounds like the stuff of myth, the first line of a fairytale told to wide-eyed children around the campfire. But it is a well-documented freakish natural disaster, known as “mautam”, which also affects states in north-eastern India.

Victor Biak Lian, from the Chin Human Rights Organisation, who is in Australia to raise money for the latest famine, says that when the bamboo flowers, it produces seeds that rats eat. “These rats multiply so fast and there is a rat plague,” he says. The rats then devoured the rice crops in the isolated, mountainous region, leading to famine.

The last time the bamboo flowered was in 1958 — leading to famines in Chin and the neighbouring Indian state of Mizoram — with previous occurrences in 1911 and 1862.

Mr Lian says the bamboo began flowering at the end of 2006. A report by the Chin Human Rights Organisation last year said up to 200 villages were directly affected by severe food shortages and about 100,000 — 20 per cent of the Chin population — were in need of immediate food aid.

In Melbourne there are about 1400 Chin people, a Christian ethnic minority group persecuted by the Burmese military junta. The local community helped organise the Chin Live Aid Concert at the Box Hill Town Hall last Saturday that raised money for the bamboo flower victims.

Concerts, featuring Burmese and Indian singers, will also be held in Adelaide tonight and Perth next Saturday night.

Mr Lian, who fled Burma during the 1988 uprising and now lives in exile in Canada and Thailand, will also go to Canberra next week to lobby the Federal Government to raise awareness about the famine and push for a democratic system in Burma. “We strongly believe Burma needs a federal system in which all the different ethnicities are able to survive,” he says. “If we go on as it is, ethnic groups will be wiped out because of the Burmanisation policy, which is to make one language, one religion.”

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