INTERVIEW: Arakan Army to assist aid efforts for cyclone victims in Myanmar’s Rakhine

The rebel group is even willing to work with the junta on recovery in the region.
By Nay Rein Kyaw for RFA Burmese
INTERVIEW: Arakan Army to assist aid efforts for cyclone victims in Myanmar’s Rakhine Residents walk past damaged buildings in Sittwe township, Rakhine state, Myanmar, on Tuesday, May 16, 2023.
Associated Press

Updated at 9:28 am EDT on May 17, 2023.

On Sunday, Cyclone Mocha slammed into the coast of western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, flattening homes, blocking roads with fallen electricity pylons, splintering trees and causing widespread flooding. Power was cut off to the capital Sittwe, a city of about 150,000. Of the 431 people confirmed dead throughout the country as of Tuesday, 425 were killed by the storm in Rakhine state, according to the shadow National United Government.

In the aftermath of one of the worst cyclones to hit Myanmar in a decade, the ethnic Arakan Army has pledged to cooperate with all aid groups assisting rescue efforts in Rakhine, where the group said that in some places, entire villages were destroyed. The ethnic rebel group, which is fighting the military regime for control of Rakhine state, has appealed to neighboring countries and the international community for assistance in providing food and medicine to those left homeless by the cyclone.

Speaking to RFA Burmese senior editor Nay Rein Kyaw, AA Information Officer Khaing Thuka discussed the scale of the destruction, the situation of the stateless ethnic Muslim Rohingya community living in camps for the displaced, and expectations of how long it will take for life to return to normal in Rakhine.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RFA: Reports suggest that about 90% of Rakhine state was damaged by Cyclone Mocha, while telephone and internet services in cities such as Sittwe have been cut. Could you tell us what you have heard about the situation through AA’s military communications?

Khaing Thuka: At the moment, 80% or even 90% of some towns and villages in the north of Rakhine and in Sittwe have been damaged. Some villages have been totally destroyed ... The Tein Nyo camps for those displaced by conflict have been totally destroyed. The roofs of 80% of all houses in Kyauktaw township were blown away in the storm.

RFA: What is the situation with access to electricity there?

Khaing Thuka: Electricity has been cut off everywhere. All electrical pylons on the Sittwe-Yangon road have collapsed. Telephone communications have been cut off as well and while they are up and running in some areas, the connections have been unstable. We haven’t been able to communicate with the townships of Rathedaung, Buthidaung and Maungtaw. 

RFA: What are the main areas your organization has been helping? Have you had the chance to help in Sittwe, too?

Khaing Thuka: Prior to the storm, we helped evacuate about 100,000 people to safety. But the living situation of the people who fled has become more difficult after the storm. We placed them in well-built structures such as schools and monasteries, but the roofs were blown away by the storm, and now the displaced are forced to stay in whatever shelter they can find, while facing serious difficulties.

Additionally, roads in the state are blocked by trees downed during the storm. The AA and residents have begun clearing roads. We have started collecting data to get an overview of the damage.

A member of the Arakan Army helps evacuate residents of Rakhine state, Myanmar, before the arrival of Cyclone Mocha, May 12, 2023. Credit: Arakan Army

RFA: What have you heard about the Rohingya camps for the displaced?

Khaing Thuka: We don’t have a clear idea of how much was destroyed at the Muslim camps in areas controlled by the military junta. The phone communications there are down as well. However, we evacuated the camps under our control before the storm hit. 

RFA: How long do you estimate that it will take until telephone, internet and electricity services are restored?

Khaing Thuka: That depends on how fast the junta undertakes relief projects.

Housing, food and medicine needed

RFA: What are the supplies most urgently needed for the current situation?

Khaing Thuka: One emergency requirement is shelter. Since 80% or 90% of all houses in northern Rakhine state are damaged, roofs and walls for houses are in high demand. Additionally, the displaced need food, drinking water and medicine. We need assistance from neighboring countries and the international community for this.

RFA: The United Nations and members of the international community have announced that assistance was prepared in advance to help the victims of the storm. What do you know about that?

Khaing Thuka: Yes, we have heard that too. But [so far], I have not seen such assistance arrive. The AA is ready to cooperate and coordinate with any international relief and humanitarian organizations to help the victims. 

Members of the Arakan Army help residents of Rakhine state, Myanmar, board a boat for evacuation before the arrival of Cyclone Mocha, May 12, 2023. Credit: Arakan Army

RFA: Are you also willing to cooperate with the military junta to help victims?

Khaing Thuka: That depends on what they propose. Our organization is ready to cooperate with any group in any way to help those affected by the disaster.

RFA: [The anti-junta shadow National Unity Government] said before the storm that it will help victims however it can … Is the AA cooperating with the NUG on relief work?

Khaing Thuka: I haven’t heard the specifics on what they discussed with our central office, but I can confirm their offer. Our position on this is clear: We will cooperate with any organization to help the victims affected by the storm.

Updated to correct typo in first paragraph, attributes death toll to NUG, corrects title for RFA's Nay Rein Kyaw.

Translated by Myo Min Aung. Edited by Joshua Lipes and Malcolm Foster.


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