Myanmar's president to farmers: work harder


Myanmar farmer U Thein Hlaing, 62, poses in his paddy field on the outskirts of Yangon on October 24, 2011.



The lot of the typical Myanmar farmer is bleak. They are too often over their heads in debt, eating much of what they grow and reliant on archaic equipment.

But Thein Sein, Myanmar's president, has a message for his nation's farmers.

Work harder!

In a recent presidential speech, recounted by the government-run New Light of Myanmar, he requested "high morale" from farmers and compelled them to "try their best in their works." The long-suffering nation, now charting a wobbly ascent towards development, must first modernize its agriculture before becoming an industrialized nation, he said.

He's right.

A nation's labor force doesn't march straight from paddy fields into cubicles.

But there is irony in a senior Myanmar official urging high morale from farmers living hand-to-mouth. The nation is decayed by government neglect. Though now run by a quasi-democratic body headed by Thein Sein, the previous junta hoarded money for the military and dribbled crumbs towards infrastructure, education and healthcare.

This created a society where most farmers, despite their best efforts, can achieve very little.

Big yields require irrigation systems, equipment and roads to deliver crops to market. Acquiring seeds, buffalo and tools often requires loans but, without a functional banking system, most farmers resort to predatory private lenders. Myanmar economic expert Sean Turnell has warned of a rural debt crisis in rural Myanmar where, as he told the Myanmar Times, there is "no finance available ... truly nothing."

While on assignment recently in Myanmar's eastern Karen State, partially under the control of ethnic guerrilla forces, I met a farmer in his 50s named Ko Hae. His frame was bent from hard labor. But no matter how hard he worked, and even though he ate only once a day, he believed he could never pay off a $200 debt owed to a village lender. The farmer was quite sure he would die before clearing his debt.

According to the New Light of Myanmar, Myanmar's president told farmers that "only when they work hard will they enjoy fruits of works."

Most farmers are already working plenty hard. Their productivity, however, is severely limited by debt, sickness, isolation and government neglect.