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May 16, 2013

Distrust Hinders Burma Cyclone Evacuation Effort

by Daniel Schearf

Authorities in Bangladesh and Burma are working to quickly move to safety hundreds of thousands of people still at risk from cyclone Mahasen.  The tropical storm hit Bangladesh and is expected to make landfall as early as Friday in western Rakhine state in Burma, where some people displaced from last year's sectarian violence have been reluctant to move. 

Hundreds of thousands of people were ordered to evacuate parts of southern Bangladesh as the cyclone brought heavy winds and rains to flood the area.

Although the storm weakened before coming ashore in Bangladesh, Burma is bracing for an expected landfall Friday in western Rakhine state where attention is focused on tens of thousands of people living in temporary relief camps.

Sectarian violence last year displaced 140,000 people into the camps, the vast majority of them ethnic Rohingya Muslims.

The United Nations says about 70,000 are especially at risk, living in low-lying areas or in makeshift shelters and tents.

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Authorities and international aid groups are relocating the IDPs to safer shelters.

Vivian Tan, the regional spokeswoman for the UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said at least 35,000 people were moved as of Wednesday but some were resisting.

"Some did not like the relocation sites designated by the government.  Some were afraid that they would lose their spots in the existing IDP camps," Tan explained.  "Some were worried they may be asked to go back to their villages, that they fled last year, after the storm.  So, there's a number of concerns and we're trying to get as much reassurances from the government that people will be allowed to go back to the IDP camps after the storm passes."

There is little trust between the Rohingya and authorities after clashes last year with ethnic Rakhine Buddhists left 200 dead and thousands of homes burned to the ground.

The Rohingya bore the brunt of the violence and have been living in segregated camps ever since.  Human Rights Watch accused authorities of fomenting ethnic cleansing, a charge they deny.

Burma does not recognize the Rohingya as citizens or an ethnic group and considers them illegal migrants from Bangladesh, despite many having lived in Burma for generations.

Nonetheless, President's Office Minister Aung Min told reporters in Rangoon Wednesday all would receive help with no discrimination between Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya.

He said they cannot stop disaster if the cyclone hits.  But, it is their duty to do as much as possible to prevent damage and reduce the death toll.  He said preparation work will be done without distinguishing race and religion.  He added that all their actions will be transparent and they will also receive advice from international organizations.

Aung Min said international humanitarian organizations that have been helping at IDP camps are ready to provide cyclone aid as needed.

The government's response is in stark contrast with the previous military government's handling of the last cyclone in 2008.

Cyclone Nargis swept across the Irrawaddy delta, southwest of Rangoon, killing at least 130,000 people.  Authorities made few preparations and initially refused outside help, which critics say contributed to the death toll.

International aid and rights groups have for months been warning the camps in Rakhine state were not built to deal with storms that come during the rainy season.

The UN's Tan acknowledges Burmese authorities could have started evacuations sooner and worked faster.  But, she said the change in attitude to foreign help is significant and they are working well with international organizations, including the United Nations.

"The international community and humanitarian agencies are doing whatever we can at the moment.  But, we certainly need to stay engaged because this is just the beginning of several months of rains that will hit the region," Tan noted. "So, things aren't going to get better.  We need to stay engaged to make sure that shelters are built, that people are not forgotten once this cyclone passes."

Since last year's unrest, international aid groups in Rakhine say Buddhist extremists have prevented access to some camps and threatened their staff.

Despite concerns about helping relocate Rohingya ahead of the cyclone, Tan said they have not heard of any problems for aid groups.

The UNHCR has tents and plastic sheets in Rakhine and will continue building shelters in safer locations after the storm clears.  

Tan said the UN's World Food Program has about one month's supply of food in the area and Burma's Ministry of Health has prepositioned staff and medicine, though she could not say if their numbers were adequate.