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Deadly Storm Compounds Need for Aid in Myanmar

A Rohingya woman sits by her destroyed house at Ohn Taw Chay refugee camp in Sittwe on May 16, 2023, in the aftermath of Cyclone Mocha's landfall.
A Rohingya woman sits by her destroyed house at Ohn Taw Chay refugee camp in Sittwe on May 16, 2023, in the aftermath of Cyclone Mocha's landfall.

One week after deadly Cyclone Mocha, Rohingya survivors are desperate for help. Residents at a camp for Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) told VOA that the storm made hundreds of Rohingya refugees “disappear.”

The Category 4 cyclone destroyed bridges, power lines and huts in refugee camps and towns in Rakhine state, home to over 600,000 Rohingya Muslims, of whom nearly 150,000 are currently living in camps outside of the state’s capital, Sittwe.

"Every camp and village has been devastated,” Aung Zaw Hein, a resident of Thet Kay Pyin camp, recently told VOA by phone, "there is nowhere to live and no food to eat."

He himself has assisted IDPs, but said, "some injured people are not receiving medical care. The government hospital in Thet Kay Pyin has been damaged, and no clinicians are available.

"We discovered more than 100 dead bodies as of May 16 while compiling death registers," Aung Zaw Hein said. "It is impossible to know for certain how many people have died and been abandoned in our area.”

“There are likely hundreds more as we saw bodies from coastal villages floating in the floodwaters during the storm,” he added.

There were at least 13 IDP camps in low-lying areas near the capital, with most of the residents of the camps consisting of Muslim Rohingya displaced after clashes with Rakhine Buddhists in 2012.

On Friday, state-run MRTV said that, in addition to the 117 Rohingya, four soldiers and 24 locals in Rakhine had also died. The deaths were blamed on people who didn't leave their homes even though the authorities had told them to before the storm hit.

VOA cannot independently verify the death toll.

Language barriers and travel restrictions may have also contributed to the problem, Aung Zaw Hein said.

“The majority of Rohingya IDPs do not speak Rakhine or Burmese, when we were given advance warning [it was] in those languages. We were not given sufficient assistance to escape our compounds,” he told VOA. “It is difficult for us to flee the storm and save our lives, because we lack citizenship status. Even before the coup, without official permission, the Rohingya cannot move freely without fear of arrest.”

Local independent community organizations in Sittwe told VOA that the response efforts in cyclone-affected communities are failing and that they require extensive humanitarian aid.

"We are understaffed and under-resourced," Wai Han Aung, a Rakhine humanitarian worker from Sittwe, told VOA by phone. “No longer is assistance possible anywhere. We would like to request that INGOs and NGOs immediately intervene.”

UN waiting for formal approval

During a regular news briefing on Friday, U.N. spokesperson Stephanie Tremblay responded to VOA regarding the U.N.'s access to cyclone-affected areas in Rakhine.

"We have requested unrestricted access for coordinated field missions to distribute aid based on observed needs, and we are still awaiting formal approvals,” Tremblay said.

She added that the U.N. assessment of the needs of the cyclone-affected region is "ongoing and … will have more clarity in the coming days.”

According to a Myanmar junta statement on May 15, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing said, “Relief teams must be dispatched to the storm-affected areas to carry out rescue and relief operations, as well as rehabilitation.”

State media also depicted Min Aung Hlaing touring cyclone-devastated areas of the Sittwe township.

On Friday, the United Kingdom hosted a closed Arria formula meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the situation in Myanmar. According to the statement released by the U.K., the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states, ASEAN dialogue partners and countries bordering Myanmar were also invited to participate.

Before the informal meeting, the U.K. mission to the United Nations announced new funding of $2.5 million for the initial emergency response to support communities impacted by Cyclone Mocha in northwest Myanmar. In their statement, they also called on other U.N. member states to assist those affected by the cyclone.

In a statement, British U.N. Ambassador Barbara Woodward said, “The U.N. Humanitarian Response Plan for Myanmar is 90% unfunded. We call on member states to step up and support the Myanmar people – and we call for full, safe, timely, and unhindered humanitarian access so aid can get to those in need.”

During the meeting, Ambassador Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar's opposition envoy to the United Nations, warned the international community that aid must be thoroughly monitored to ensure that it reaches those in need.

“They (the junta) have put undue restrictions on humanitarian access,” Kyaw Moe Tun said. “These access restrictions, intimidation of aid organizations and weaponization of aid delivery for legitimacy purposes have made humanitarian aid operations significantly challenging and undermine humanitarian principles.”

Many residents affected by the storm live in coup-resistant areas farther inland.

The storm brought torrential rainfall and gale-force winds to Sagaing, Magway, Chin, Kachin and northern Shan.

Two female representatives from human rights groups in Myanmar, who also attended the U.N. meeting, accused the military of blocking humanitarian aid to these armed opposition areas, which is not without precedent. After one of Asia's deadliest cyclones, Nargis, killed 140,000 people in Myanmar's Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, similar accusations were made that were later shown to be true.

The storm has brought more devastation to a country and region already facing many challenges, while bringing into focus the need for humanitarian aid.

"This is the most difficult time of our lives," humanitarian worker Wai Han Aung said. “There are many problems, such as natural disasters, armed conflict, intercommunal conflict and regions where international communities struggle to carry out their duties effectively. We are experiencing extreme suffering."