RANGOON—The day before the expected landfall of a tropical storm on Burma’s west coast, the government has warned that it will take serious action against anyone who refuses to evacuate to higher ground.
The warning, made by Union Minister Aung Min on Wednesday, came after reports that displaced Rohingya Muslims in west Burma’s Arakan State had refused to leave their camps as Cyclone Mahasen approaches.
“According to the natural disaster management law, anyone who doesn’t follow the government’s arrangement to move to a safer place can be punished,” he told diplomats, NGO workers and reporters at a media briefing in Rangoon. “It’s just for humanitarian concerns.
“We can’t avoid natural disasters, but we are responsible to tackle them so they have minimum impact,” he added, as the most senior government official to brief the media thus far on efforts to prepare for the cyclone.
International and government weather reports said the cyclone would likely cross Bangladesh and Burma’s west coast on Thursday evening, with winds reaching speeds of up to 120 miles per hour and storm surges expected in low-lying areas.
In Arakan State, the most disaster-prone areas include Maungtaw Township and the state capital Sittwe, as well as other townships in low-lying regions, with 160,000 possible storm victims, according to the government.
Especially vulnerable are the tens of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) currently living in camps in the state’s flood-prone and low-lying regions. The IDPs—mostly minority Rohingya Muslims—were displaced during sectarian clashes between majority Buddhist communities and minority Muslims last year.
“Their first concern is for their security,” Ye Htut, the deputy minister of information, said of the Rohingya IDPs during the press conference. “Their next worry is about having access to their old places.”
Aid workers say the Rohingya, who are denied citizenship in Burma and widely seen as illegal migrants from neighboring Bangladesh, have faced restricted movement and poor conditions in the IDP camps. Many were forced from their homes after their communities were burned down during the clashes last year.
Ye Htut said the Rohingya had been evacuated to an army barracks but would be allowed to return to their “former homes” after the storm. It was not clear whether he was referring to the IDP camps or their old hometowns.
“This time it’s very important not to lose more than 100,000 lives, as we did during Cyclone Nargis,” he added, referring to the storm that hit the country’s delta region five years ago.
He added that two national-level committees had been formed ahead of Mahasen on President Thein Sein’s orders to prepare for the storm and carry our relief efforts.
“So far we have evacuated 27,341 Bengalis,” Aung Min said, using the government’s term for the Rohingya.
During a coordination meeting in Naypyidaw on Tuesday, Thein Sein urged officials to carry out relief efforts without racial and religious discrimination, the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper reported.
Speaking after the media briefing in Rangoon on Wednesday, the US Ambassador to Burma Derek Mitchell encouraged the Burmese government to reassure Rohignya communities that aid would be distributed evenly.
“Explain to them what the plan will be not just before, but also after the storm, so that they know that security will be provided to them, that they will have voluntary ability to return, and that there will be justice served for them so that they feel now they can trust the movement,” he said. “There needs to be, I think, more in terms of that vision being created for them to feel fully comfortable and to get out of harm’s way.”
Mitchell said he appreciated the Burmese government’s efforts to brief members of the international community about the cyclone, and he called for continued transparency on the ground in Arakan State.
“It would be very useful on the ground, with your vice president there and others, to have daily briefings like this, so we and everybody else can hear the situation as it evolves before the storm, during the storm and after the storm so we can continually get the information back to our capitals,” he said, adding that the United States was working in Arakan State with other members of the international community including the United Nations, the European Union and other Southeast Asian countries.
After Cyclone Nargis hit in 2008, relief efforts were severely slowed because the former military regime initially refused to accept international aid.
“I want to commend this particular effort of you all for coming in front of the international community and the media, your people and us,” Mitchell said.
Burma’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has assigned an officer to coordinate with international aid workers in Arakan State and has also set up an email account to answer questions about the cyclone.
“We’ve already have a focal contact if the international community want to communicate for rehabilitation process,” Thant Kyaw, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, said on Wednesday.