Asia in trouble as food prices go high

Singapore, April 8:

Asia’s governments face strikes, protests and hoarding in response to the spiralling cost of food and other essentials that threatens to damage them at the polls, observers say.

Asia’s political leaders are on guard, wary of the potential for social unrest as people across the region struggle to cope with steeper prices for staple goods — particularly rice.

“There will be unrest and the poorer countries will experience that much more than rich countries like Malaysia and Singapore,” said Ooi Kee Beng, a fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore. Poverty-stricken Bangladesh and the Philippines have been particularly hard hit by higher food prices. “Soaring food prices have become a serious threat for the survival of the present caretaker government,” said Bangladeshi political scientist Ataur Rahman. “There could now be serious discontent, violence and food riots due to the soaring food price spikes.”

Bangladeshis and poor Indonesians are estimated to spend close to 70 per cent or more of their income on food.

In the Philippines, one of the world’s biggest importers of rice, the government deployed troops last week to deliver grain to poor areas of the capital Manila amid worries about shortages.

It also ordered police to arrest rice hoarders as part of efforts to pre-empt the ‘impact on peace and order’ of rises in basic commodity prices, the police said.

Analysts have said economic misery in crushingly-poor Myanmar was a force behind protests which drew up to 100,000 people into the streets of the military-ruled country last year. The unrest became the biggest challenge to the regime in almost 20 years, until the junta in late September unleashed deadly force to end it. Demonstrations initially began on a small scale in August after a sharp fuel price hike.

The junta said 15 people died in the crackdown but rights groups have given a far higher toll. Experts say soaring global crude prices are among the factors to blame for Asia’s food inflation. Higher fuel prices directly translate into an added burden for the region’s poor through, for example, higher fares on public buses which are often people’s only mode of transport.

The price of China’s staple meat, pork, has ri-sen by more than 60 per cent year-on-year. “There is a lot of resentment because of price rise,” said Jean-Pierre Cabestan.