MANILA, PHILIPPINES - PRESIDENT Gloria Arroyo on Tuesday vowed to imprison anyone who pilfers state-subsidised rice as the Philippines denied it was going the way of countries hit by rioting caused by soaring food prices.
'Anyone caught stealing rice from the people must be thrown into jail,' Mrs Arroyo said after a cabinet meeting to discuss the rapid rise in the price of rice, the country's staple cereal.
Manila is expected to spend nearly one percent of its economic output this year to provide rice at nearly half the market price to the country's poorest families, and has been scrambling to increase stocks at government grains silos even as neighbours curtail exports.
'I am leading the charge to crack down on any form of corruption by public or private persons who would divert supplies or pervert the price of this essential commodity in any way,' Mrs Arroyo said.
She also said she would seek passage of a 'consumer bill of rights' to address the problem of high prices, although she did not elaborate.
The president has previously ordered the military and police to secure rice warehouses and distribution centres, and has called on law enforcement to crack down on those who sell government-subsidised rice stocks at market prices.
Mrs Arroyo also urged the public not to panic over the price increases, saying the Philippines has a secure supply of rice from both local production and foreign sources.
The Philippines, with a rapidly growing population now estimated at 90 million, is among the world's largest importers of rice.
Analysts have said that any sudden upward movements in the price of the commodity could lead to social unrest and pose security problems in the country where about one-third of the people live on a dollar a day or less. The government has deployed police and military to clamp down on rice hoarders.
Less rations in the pipeline
Meanwhile, the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) said Tuesday it may be forced to cut rations feeding more than a million people in the troubled southern Philippines because of the soaring world food prices.
The WFP has 4,000 tonnes of rice left in its warehouse in conflict-hit Mindanao, a supply that will last about two months, said Alghassim Wurie, the agency's deputy country director.
If the WFP fails to get more funds it may be forced to 'cut rations and the most affected would be women and children,' Wurie said.
Education Secretary Jesli Lapus said on Monday that the government would try to help families hit by the food price rises by expanding a school soup kitchen programme.
Under the initiative, students in kindergarten and first grade receive a kilogramme of iron-fortified rice to take home to their families on 120 days of each school year. -- AFP