UN agencies offer dire warnings on Myanmar

Chaos caused by the coup would wipe out all economic gains made during decade of democratic rule, the UNDP says; meanwhile, thousands of Karen are poised to flee across the border into Thailand if fighting intensifies in coming weeks, as many expect

UN agencies offer dire warnings on Myanmar
Activists hold a protest against the military coup in Myanmar near the Association of Southeast Asian Nations secretariat building in Jakarta earlier this week. Photo: Reuters.

(ATF) The military coup launched in Myanmar in February will set the Southeast Asian nation's economy back more than 15 years, a United Nations agency warned on Friday.

The United Nations Development Programme said that nearly half the country's 54 million people would be below the poverty line by 2022 because of the political crisis.

The situation is exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic, which has overstressed Myanmar's primitive healthcare system, which was rated as one of the worst in the world 20 years ago.

The chaos caused by the coup would wipe out all the economic gains made during its decade of democratic rule and push Myanmar back to development levels last seen in 2005, officials from the UNDP said. 

Myanmar would see a "tragic and avoidable backsliding" into poverty, the agency said.

The UNDP warning follows that of another UN agency, the World Food Programme (WFP), which said at least 2 million people face starvation because of the political crisis in the country.

'RISING DESPERATION'

The agency said it would work with the army junta to provide food, amid rising “hunger and desperation”. 

The operation would focus on poor townships in Myanmar’s main cities “and other areas where population displacement has recently taken place” since the February 1 coup, WFP said in a statement.  

Within the next six months, the UN agency warned that an additional 3.4 million people would go hungry, particularly in urban centres.

More than 2.8 million people were considered to be "food insecure" in Myanmar before the military takeover, WFP said. 

“More and more poor people have lost their jobs and are unable to afford food”, WFP country director Stephen Anderson said.

“A concerted response is required now to alleviate immediate suffering, and to prevent an alarming deterioration in food security,” he added.

THOUSANDS MAY FLEE TO THAILAND

Meanwhile, thousands of ethnic Karen villagers in southeast Myanmar are poised to cross into Thailand if fighting intensifies between the Myanmar army and Karen insurgents, as many expect. 

Karen rebels and the Myanmar army have clashed near the Thai border in the recent weeks since the coup, which has been strongly opposed by ethnic groups as well as the Bamar majority in the centre of the country.

"People say the Burmese will come and shoot us, so we fled here," Chu Wah told Reuters. The Karen villager said he crossed over to Thailand with his family this week from the Ee Thu Hta displacement camp in Myanmar.

"I had to flee across the river," Chu Wah said, referring to the Salween River that forms the border in the area.

The Karen Peace Support Network says thousands of villagers are taking shelter on the Myanmar side of the Salween and they will flee to Thailand if the fighting escalates.

"In coming days, more than 8,000 Karen along the Salween River will have to flee to Thailand. We hope that the Thai army will help them escape the war," the group said in a post on Facebook.

On Tuesday, Karen fighters overran a Myanmar army unit on the west bank of the Salween in a predawn attack. The Karen said 13 soldiers and three of their fighters were killed. The Myanmar military responded with airstrikes in several areas near the Thai border later that day.

Thai authorities say nearly 200 villagers have crossed into Thailand this week. Thailand has reinforced its forces and restricted access to the border.

Hundreds of Thai villagers have also been displaced, moving from their homes close to the border, to deeper into Thai territory for safety.

"The situation has escalated so we can't go back," said Warong Tisakul, 33, a Thai villager from Mae Sam Laep, a settlement, now abandoned, opposite the Myanmar army post attacked this week.

"Security officials won't let us; we can't go back." 

With reporting by Reuters

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Myanmar economy coup military Burma UNDP WFP United Nations