News Trickles Out of Burma's Fishing Disaster

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A picture obtained on March 27, 2011 from Burma's Popular News Journal shows fishermen sitting in a navy ship on March 20 after being rescued along the country's southern coast

The earthquake that hit Burma last week wasn't the deadliest disaster to strike the Southeast Asian nation this month. While the 6.8 magnitude earthquake in the country's northeast killed hundreds, a storm that raged off Burma's southern coastline in mid-March took the lives of thousands of fishermen caught out at sea. With the government making no public statement, news has been scant and details sketchy about a tragedy that has left thousands of poor families in an even deeper state of destitution in an area still recovering from the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Nargis in 2008.

News of the disaster first appeared last week on the website of The Irrawaddy, an online publication run by Burmese exiles in Thailand, which said 3,700 fishermen had perished in the storm. Determining the exact number may be impossible, however. The Myanmar Fisheries Federation, a private-sector organization, said about 10,000 fishermen ply the coastline, of whom roughly 8,000 are now accounted for following the storm that struck from March 14 to 16. Others may still be adrift — the Indian Navy has picked up about 100 in recent days — leading the Federation to conclude that about one thousand have likely died. But a Rangoon-based journalist who visited the coastline along the Irrawaddy Delta, and asked not to be named, said that many fishermen don't register with the authorities or the Federation, and so the numbers are possibly higher. Despite the efforts of the Indian Navy, there has been no word from Burma's government about any rescue operation by its own navy.

Burma's government, long suspicious of foreigners, has restricted access to the Delta region since the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which killed over 100,000 people. "Most of the dead and missing fishermen were laborers on bamboo rafts," a development worker in the region, who asked not to be named, wrote in an email. "They catch small shrimps which are collected by the owners and used for making shrimp paste. There are three to five persons on each raft." According to the Rangoon-based journalist, most of them were contract fishermen for companies, and a typical salary was 3,000 kyats a month, or about $35. Those who earn less than $1.25 a day are living below UN's common international poverty line.

The impact of their death on food security for communities along the coastline is difficult to assess. "Loss of boats and life of course plunges these already poor fishers into even more desperate conditions. Loss of the main breadwinner in the family will render those families with no male able to catch fish," says Simon Funge-Smith, a senior fisheries officer based in Bangkok for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations. Roughly 16% of Burma's population is undernourished, according to FAO, but rates are probably higher in the coastal fishing communities, which are predominantly poor and have few sources of food or livelihood beyond fishing.

The situation of fishermen and fishing communities in Burma, however, is fairly typical among countries that border the Bay of Bengal, such as Bangladesh, India and Thailand. "There is a high incidence of tragedies affecting small scale fishers who have one of the most vulnerable occupations in the world," says Jose Parajua, manager of an FAO-implemented fishing program in the region. "What happened in [Burma] happens in many countries."