October 16, 2008 -- A rat infestation so severe that an estimated 100,000 people are on the brink of starvation is devastating the Chin State in Western Myanmar, and the nation's government is doing nothing to help its people, according to activists fighting for aid.
Human right organizations on the ground say as many as 100 children and elderly have already died from malnutrition as the rats ravage the community's crops. While this infestation started as a natural disaster, it is being met by gross neglect by the nation's leaders, according to the rights groups.
"The famine is little known, poorly dealt with, and ignored by the government," said Salai Bawi Lian of the Chin Human Rights Organization, which is based in Canada.
"In this area, people have been suffering, dying, no people know about it," Lian said of the Chin region, which he described at the most isolated jungle area in the country.
In Myanmar, the phenomenon causing the famine is known as "maudam"- a happening that occurs about once every 50 years, in which flowering bamboo trees produce a fruit on which the rat population gorges. The last time it struck was in 1958, with other occurrences in 1911 and 1862.
Instead of cannibalizing their young for food, as these rats normally do, the bamboo fruit provides the rats with the means to multiply by the millions. And when there is no fruit left, the plague of hungry rats decimate rice and corn crops in Western Myanmar so much so that an estimated 200 villages of an estimated 100,000 Chin people are now without food.
"Rats are everywhere, everywhere," Victor Biak Lian, the chair of the Chin Human Rights organization who recently visited the region. "What I see is starvation."
And while the rat problem is explosive, the rights groups say that what is even more horrific is the way in which the Myanmar government has responded: by doing nothing. Myanmar is not the only nation plagued by this phenomenon, but aid workers say it is the only one where no action is being taken by its government. The bamboo flower-fuelled disaster has also hit India, but the government there formed alliances with NGOs and prepared for the crisis.
According to a report by activist Edith Mirante for the NGO Project Maje, India has responded by paying Indian citizens for every rat caught in regional villages, building rat-proof granaries, and building roads and helipads to access outlying villages so that food aid can be provided to needy citizens.
And although the Indian government and NGOs are providing food aid for the affected region there – the Bangladeshi government has also received food aid and support from the United Nations World Food Program for its maudam problem – activists say no such relief is being provided to the Chin people by the Burmese government.
Aid that does make it to the Chin is, for the most part, coming in the form of 60-pound bags of donated rice from Western Christian groups. And even that is reportedly endangered.
Myanmar Officials Seizing Food Aid, Say Officials
The Chin Human Rights Organization reports that more than 450 bags of rice donated as food aid by the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of the Province of Myanmar in April were confiscated by the Burmese government. The group says this rice was then sold at an overpriced rate so that the local authorities could make a profit.
The U.N. has recently sent international staff to Chin State, but Risley said aid agencies in the affected areas have to be careful not just to provide food for needy villages, which could lead to those villages being overwhelmed by hungry villagers from other areas. Instead, the U.N. has proposed a work-for-food program in which Chin farmers and villages will jointly work on community projects -- like building roads and schools -- in exchange for bags of rice.
"As long as we are taking care of the food problem that the generals of the Myanmar government would otherwise have to deal with themselves, we are fairly confident we can do this," Risley continued, saying that the government could end up constraining relief efforts. The U.N. is currently asking the U.S. and other countries to provide funding and support for the Chin.
The Chin Human Rights Organization and the U.S. Campaign for Burma believe at least $1 million is needed for immediate assistance.
Experts estimate that the maudam will last between two and five years, and relief organizations say that a sustained relief effort will be needed to address a devastated Chin society.
The Chin people are an ethnic minority in Burma - one of the many minorities that the Myanmar government mistreats, according to human rights activists. To make matters worse, says Jeremy Woodrum of the U.S. Campaign for Burma, the Chin people are also Christians, forming a religious minority in the nation that the Myanmar government reportedly often abuses.
"The Burmese government is among the most brutal in the world, with twice as many mistreated villages than are in Darfur and the Sudan," said Woodrum. "Having a natural disaster wipe out the Chin people, a detested ethnic and religious minority, serves the Burmese regime's interest."
The Myanmar government did not return phone calls from ABC News.
Kylie Sobel is a 2008 intern at ABC News. She attends Fordham University.