As the aftermath of the devastating Cyclone Mocha, which hit Myanmar and Bangladesh on 14 May, slowly comes to light, the actions of the Myanmar military junta have clearly worsened the impact on local populations, according to campaign group Progressive Voice.
It says that whether blaming the Rohingya for their own predicament, denying access to UN agencies, arresting people attempting to deliver aid, or releasing misinformation and obfuscating numbers of dead by threatening media, it is clear that the junta could not care less about the wellbeing of some of the most vulnerable populations in the world.
Cyclone Mocha made landfall on 14 May, and tore through Rakhine State, reaching further north to Chin State and Sagaing and Magwe Regions, and even Kachin State. It also hit Bangladesh, home to around one million Rohingya refugees living in precarious settlements in large refugee camps.
Information from the ground, while hard to come by due to communication towers being blown over, tell of at least hundreds of people dead, livestock killed, houses torn apart, infrastructure damaged, and fresh water sources destroyed.
The humanitarian wing of the United League of Arakan/Arakan Army, the main political authority in Rakhine State, noted that the number of people affected is 1.5million while 400,000 buildings have been destroyed or partially damaged.
There are desperate humanitarian needs, particularly freshwater, emergency food, medical supplies, and building materials.
However, the military junta has thus far refused access to UN and humanitarian agencies, reminiscent of the previous junta’s handling of Cyclone Nargis of 2008 which killed at least 140,000 people, many of whom could have lived if humanitarian assistance hadn’t been weaponized.
According to Progressive Voice, the weaponization of aid has been a cynical and cruel feature of the way that the junta addresses the humanitarian crises it has created since its coup of February 2021.
Vulnerable communities hit by Cyclone Mocha include the Rohingya in IDP camps, especially around the Rakhine State capital, Sittwe, which was hit particularly hard.
Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing, however, appears to blame the Rohingya themselves for the death toll, as they apparently refused to evacuate when instructed to. Yet pre-cyclone evacuation attempts were
completely inadequate, as information from the IDP camps shows that while they were told to evacuate, there were simply not enough places to go to and there was no help or facilitation for them to seek safety.
A local journalist told media outlet Myanmar Now that junta soldiers “didn’t provide any real help, nor did they provide people in the camps with necessary information regarding the incoming storm. They just took photos.” To make matters worse, there was a lack of information provided regarding the coming storm, with warnings being issued in Rakhine or Burmese language rather than in the Rohingya language.
A statement by 31 Rohingya civil society organizations outlined the specific vulnerabilities of the displaced Rohingya in Rakhine State, a community that survived the Myanmar military’s genocidal violence in 2017, especially their lack of free movement hindering their ability to move to a safer place.
As they state, “our sufferings are exacerbated by man-made discrimination, such as restrictions of movement, exclusion from organized evacuation, and restriction of humanitarian access.” This is in contrast to efforts made by the ULA/AA in Rakhine communities, which involved disseminating awareness posters, informational pamphlets and evacuating people, both Rakhine and Rohingya.
The death toll remains unknown with hundreds reported dead already. The junta claimed a few days after the Cyclone, on Friday 19 May, that 145 people had died.
Their statement outlined that of these, 117 were “Bengalis.” Progressive voice notes that amid a devastating loss of life and one of the largest storms in the region in decades, the junta cannot bring itself to call the Rohingya by their name and instead continued to use the term Bengalis to imply they are illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, speaks to their lack of humanity.
Sources on the ground, however, are pointing to many more hundreds of deaths, with over 400 reported by some local organizations, as well as the National Unity Government (NUG). The true number may never come to light but the junta is doubling down on its low-ball figures, threatening media outlets with lawsuits after they reported over 400 deaths.
As Mocha made its way further north to Chin State, and Sagaing and Magwe Regions, while the storm was decreasing in strength, communities there did not experience a decrease in junta cruelty. Indeed the military junta continued to launch their scorched earth military operations in Sagaing Region, displacing 16,000 villagers, forcing people to flee through torrential wind and rain.
Not only that but internet blackouts and restrictions across the country and especially in Sagaing Region mean that people had difficulties accessing information about the incoming storm.
The populations that Cyclone Mocha has hit in western Myanmar are some of the most marginalized in the world. Not only have the Rohingya, been subject to genocide and living in apartheid-like conditions, but the rest of Rakhine State has also seen intense armed conflict in recent years while Sagaing and Magwe Regions and Chin State have experienced horrific atrocity crimes at the hands of the junta due to their fierce resistance to the coup.
Progressive Voice says that now that this natural disaster has struck, the contrast between the efforts made by the junta, which controls Rohingya IDP camps, and the AA/ULA which controls up to two-thirds of Rakhine State, demonstrates not just the ineffectiveness of the junta, but their willingness to weaponize humanitarian assistance to re-assert their increasingly empty authority.
By going through the junta, as with many other parts of Myanmar, international aid only reaches a small fraction of affected populations. Rather than relying solely on the junta, UN agencies and international humanitarian organizations must work through trusted local civil society organizations, community groups, as well as the ULA/AA.
Progressive Voice believes it is imperative that humanitarian aid reaches affected populations and, given the severity of this cyclone, a more flexible approach to aid delivery is needed, one that can support the people rather than play the junta’s endless games at the expense of Mocha’s victims.
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