Myanmar: A massive evacuation to clear low-lying camps ahead of a cyclone has run into a potentially deadly snag as many members of the displaced Rohingya minority living there have refused to leave because they don’t trust Myanmar authorities.
Around 140,000 people, mostly Rohingya, have been living in cramped tents and makeshift shelters in Rakhine State since last year, when two outbreaks of sectarian violence between the Muslim minority and ethnic Rahkine Buddhists forced many Rohingya from their homes. Nearly half of those displaced are in coastal areas considered highly vulnerable to storm surges and flooding from Cyclone Mahasen, which is expected to make a landfall early Friday.
Outside the State capital of Sittwe on Wednesday, one community of several hundred Rohingya refused to budge, despite coaxing from soldiers.
“When we told them the storm was coming, they didn’t believe us,” said army Lt. Lin Lin. “They’re still refusing to move.”
Inside the camp, cycle rickshaw driver U Kyaung Wa said his people were tired of being ordered around by Myanmar authorities. First, he said, they were moved into the camps because their houses were destroyed after last year’s violence.
“Now they say, ‘You have to move because of the storm’,” he said. “We keep refusing to go ... If they point guns at us, only then will we move.”
The cyclone churning through the Indian Ocean appears to have weakened but could still bring “life-threatening” conditions to more than 8 million people in coastal parts of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, the U.N. saidon Wednesday.
Mahasen has been downgraded to a Category 1 storm, said the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The brunt of the cyclone was barrelling toward Chittagong, Bangladesh, but could, “depending on its final trajectory, bring life-threatening conditions for 8.2 million people in northeast India, Bangladesh and Myanmar,” the U.N. office said in a storm update issued on Friday.
In Myanmar, at least eight people fleeing the cyclone, and possibly many more, were killed when overcrowded boats carrying more than 100 Rohingya capsized. Only 42 people had been rescued as of Wednesday, and the search continued for more than 50 Rohingya still missing, said Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut.
Much attention was focused on western Myanmar because of fears that heavy rains will swamp low-lying Rohingya camps.
Myanmar’s Government had planned to relocate 38,000 people within Rakhine State by Tuesday but “it is unclear how many people have been relocated,” the U.N. office said, adding that Muslim leaders in the country have called on people to cooperate with the Government’s evacuation.
The issue has been complicated by widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in Rakine. Rohingya have suffered decades of discrimination in largely Buddhist Myanmar, which does not consider them citizens.
Tensions are still running high in Rakhine State nearly a year after unrest that killed at least 192 people and left hundreds of Rohingya homes in ruins. The violence has largely segregated Rakhine State along religious lines, with prominent Buddhists including monks urging people to boycott Muslim businesses.
International rights and aid agencies urged that the evacuations be stepped up.
“If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural, but man-made,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Weather experts have warned that the storm could shift and change in intensity before hitting land.
Myanmar’s southern delta was devastated in 2008 by Cyclone Nargis, which swept away entire farming villages and killed more than 130,000 people. Two days before hitting Myanmar, Nargis weakened to a Category 1 cyclone before strengthening to a Category 4 storm.