RANGOON — As Burmese authorities evacuate people in anticipation of Thursday’s storm, some say they are being moved into harm’s way, while in Bangladesh concerns mount that refugee shelters could buckle against strong winds.
Two days ahead of Cyclone Mahasen’s projected landfall along the Bangladesh and Burma coasts, the evacuation of thousands of Burmese Buddhists and Muslims sheltering in low-lying camps continued throughout Tuesday, according to aid workers and government officials.
Tens of thousands of people, the majority of them Rohingya Muslims, fled their homes in Arakan State during two bouts of deadly Buddhist-Muslim violence in 2012 that left at least 192 people dead and 140,000 homeless. Of those, around 70,000 have been staying in flimsy, low-lying coastal camp shelters, likely to be blown down or washed away by possible 100-mph winds and storm surges of several feet when the cyclone makes landfall later this week.
Ye Htut, spokesperson for Burma President Thein Sein, posted on his Facebook that security forces were assisting people in Maungdaw to evacuate to safer locations, away from the storm area, while the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said on Tuesday: “Relocation & evacuation well underway for most vulnerable IDPs [internally displaced persons] in Rakhine [Arakan State].” That was one of several Twitter updates posted by the OCHA team during the course of the day, following an earlier estimate that up to 13,000 people had been relocated by midday on Tuesday.
Rohingya lawmaker Shwe Maung, a member of Parliament for the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said he and others are “coordinating with the UN and with government” on storm preparation and evacuation.
That view was shared across the Arakan region’s communal divide, with Khin Maung Latt of the Rakhine Nationalities Development Party (RNDP) saying Buddhist Arakanese IDPs and those living in low-lying areas were evacuating as of Tuesday, though there are hopes that the storm will not prove as threatening as currently feared.
“We are still thinking it could pass away from us and move closer to India and Bangladesh, and that it could become weak when it hits land,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Finding storm-proof buildings is key to the evacuation plans. Myo Thant, a Rohingya politician from the Democracy and Human Rights Party, said Burmese officials and NGOs are working hard to move people to safe ground ahead of the tempest. “In Buthidaung Township there are preparations to take people to the monastery and the madrasa,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Despite the ongoing measures to move people out of the cyclone’s path, MP Shwe Maung told The Irrawaddy that there are worries for some of those in the way of the coming storm, with IDPs in coastal areas around Sittwe thought to be most at risk.
“I think those IDPs in Sittwe are most vulnerable. In places like Buthidaung and Maungdaw people have better shelter—some are in houses and there are mountains near Buthidaung that can give protection and higher ground,” he said.
Some aid agencies are worried that as the storm approaches, not everyone will be relocated to secure, suitable locations. Vickie Hawkins, deputy country director for Doctors Without Borders in Burma, said “we are monitoring the relocation process, but we have concerns for some of the sites being chosen for relocation and for the services and facilities people will have when they get to these sites.”
The approaching storm has already claimed its first victims, two days before it is slated to hit the Burmese coast. One of six or seven boats carrying Muslims fleeing the coming storm—the number differing according to various accounts provided to The Irrawaddy—capsized in waters off Arakan State on Tuesday.
“There were 50 to 60 people on each boat. One boat capsized, with six people dead so far,” Myo Thant told The Irrawaddy, adding that the Burmese navy and residents in the area, likely fishermen, were searching for those missing from the overturned vessel.
Accounts from UN officials and others said that by Tuesday afternoon, eight people were confirmed dead in the boat sinking, with 42 confirmed survivors. Earlier reports put the number of dead at 100.
Elsewhere, some IDPs are said to be moving independently and seeking shelter using their own contacts and resources, rather than being relocated under government auspices or in line with official directives.
In Sittwe, there was reportedly anger at some of the relocation plans, with allegations that Rohingya and other Muslims were being asked to move to unsafe areas.
“The Muslims at Phaychaung camp were told to go to Panlanpyin, which is too near to the coast,” said Myo Win, a Muslim speaking from Sittwe, the capital of Arakan State. “Yesterday police came and damaged some of the camp to try forcing people to go.
“It is not safe in that place if the storm comes, and the Rakhine who were there have already gone to the downtown in Sittwe,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Elsewhere, accounts of panicked and confused IDPs emerged. Another Rohingya, speaking by telephone and asking that his name be withheld, said that more than 2,000 IDPs had refused to budge since Monday from a camp outside Sittwe.
“They are afraid that the government is moving them too close to the storm,” he said. “They think the places Oon Saw Gyi and Oon Daw Chay [proposed relocation sites] are too near the coastline to be safe.
“They do not know the reason why they are being asked to move there,” he added.
The majority of the IDPs are Rohingya, a Muslim minority numbering an estimated 800,000 in total. The Burmese government describes the Rohingya as immigrants from Bangladesh, refusing to acknowledge their existence as a Burmese national ethnic group.
A statement issued Tuesday by the European Community Humanitarian Office (ECHO), the European Commission’s disaster response unit, made mention of the storm preparation plans but implied that some of those in the way of the coming cyclone were not regarded as Burmese citizens.
“According to governmental and local media sources in Myanmar, tens of thousands of refugees and local people in Rakhine State are being evacuated to higher ground by local authorities and the UN,” read the statement. According to international law, the term “refugee” applies to people escaping from one country to another, usually from war or disaster, while the term “internally displaced” applies to those made homeless—often from fighting or persecution—within their own country.
In Bangladesh, which shares a frontier with Burma, and where the cyclone is likely to hit hardest, there are concerns that Bangladeshi citizens and the estimated 230,000 Rohingya refugees inside Bangladesh will not have sufficient protection from the cyclone.
A spokesperson for the Bangladesh office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) told The Irrawaddy that the government of Bangladesh is taking the lead in contingency planning and response to the cyclone. “Given the large number of Rohingya in Cox’s Bazar, it is impossible to evacuate them. The government has assured UNHCR that it will not discriminate [against] Rohingya in its cyclone response.”
The UNCHR is providing some materials for the reinforcement of the refugees’ shelters, said the spokesperson, who cautioned that “this will have a limited effect in the event of a devastating cyclone.”