Update: A boat being used to evacuate around 100 Rohingya IDPs from Arakan state’s Pauktaw prior to cyclone capsized on Monday evening after hitting rocks, according to UN agency. Unknown number are missing.
The tropical cyclone currently heading over the Indian Ocean in the direction of Burma and Bangladesh is expected to make landfall on Thursday. In humanitarian terms, the coastline that it will smash into is currently one of the most fragile in the world: up to 140,000 displaced refugees are located in flimsy camps close to the water, already seriously under-resourced – an expected sea surge will instantly flood these sites, and the subsequent gales and rainstorms should ensure they are not fit for habitation.
With only 60-odd hours to go, the Burmese government has begun moving some to higher ground. As an article in DVB today points out, however, many of these are not being moved to safe areas, but merely safer areas – camps slightly further inland, or villages which still lie well within the storm path. Troubling reports are also emerging that authorities are refusing to relocate unregistered IDPs, and are not adequately informing all of the looming dangers, with few government broadcasts having reached the camps.
The IDPs struggled during hot season – food was woefully lacking, as was medicine. If the hot season was bad for them, then the looming monsoon, whose rains arrive will harder and faster as a result of the cyclone, could be disastrous. I visited Ohne Daw refugee camp outside Sittwe in October last year, when the shelters were still flimsy wooden structures with rags stretched over them for roofs. The water, over which Thursday’s cyclone will come roaring, is only a paddy field away.
Displaced Arakanese will also be hit on Thursday, and towns and villages are likely to suffer heavy damage. The hope is that a sense of solidarity will emerge; that the threats from Arakanese towards aid workers who helped the Rohingya, and which proved such an impediment to delivering aid, will dissipate as the indiscriminate winds approach.
(READ MORE: Burma starts evacuations ahead of cyclone)
One also hopes that we will not in any way, shape or form see a repeat of the tragedy that followed Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when the regime’s denial of aid to victims contributed significantly to the 138,000-plus death toll. The UN has said that it is not directly involved in preparation for the cyclone, with the government opting to lead the efforts. Given recent accusations from Human Rights Watch that the government is involved in a campaign of ethnic cleansing against the Rohingya, this does not bode well.
The picture beyond Thursday is also worrying. Will aid, which the government with the help of extremist Arakanese has limited, be stepped up? And where will the displaced go if camps are rendered uninhabitable? They cannot go back to their homes, because for many, they were turned to dust last year. Reintegration into Buddhist-majority communities is dangerous, given that the government has made no attempt at fixing the deep wounds; in fact quite the opposite has happened, and Rohingya are still the same Untermensch they have always been. Will they set up new sites, or will existing camps become even more overpopulated? All options are on the table, and none look good.
Scrutiny of the government’s response to the cyclone is of the utmost importance, and could shed some light on its long-term intentions for the Rohingya. Let’s not forget that all in the cyclone’s path will suffer; it’s just that for one group, the timing really could not be worse, and the potential for certain elements to exploit the disaster for their own gain is certainly there.