Authorities must evacuate tens of thousands of Muslims displaced by violence in western Burma to higher ground ahead of a major tropical cyclone, a human rights group said Tuesday, as dozens of ethnic Rohingyas were reported missing after their boat capsized while fleeing the storm.
Cyclone Mahasen is expected to make landfall from the Bay of Bengal later this week, and around half of the approximately 140,000 Muslims who fled communal violence in western Burma’s Rakhine state last year are at risk, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
“The Burmese government didn’t heed the repeated warnings by governments and humanitarian aid groups to relocate displaced Muslims ahead of Burma’s rainy season,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
“If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural, but man-made.”
Rights groups say Muslims bore the brunt of last year’s violence in Rakhine state which touched off in June and, together with clashes in October, left at least 192 dead and 140,000 homeless.
The Burmese government said in a statement Tuesday that it had ordered those living in temporary huts to seek safer shelters by May 15.
Vice President Nyan Tun, who is also chairman of the National Disaster Preparedness Central Committee, was on Tuesday assigned to lead a Rakhine state-based administrative team in supervising the area ahead of the potential natural disaster.
The military has placed planes, helicopters, naval vessels, and other vehicles at the ready in case of an emergency, while medical teams and other support groups are remaining on standby.
Authorities have moved 5,158 people away from low-lying camps in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe to safer shelter, while displaced persons were also moved in 10 other townships in the region, the government said.
But Human Rights Watch called the Burmese government’s preventative evacuations “limited,” adding that numerous camps for the displaced remain occupied “with no apparent plans for people to be moved or official warnings about the impending cyclone.”
It said that Muslim families who attempt to flee the camps on their own may be subject to violence from ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and local security forces.
Humanitarian aid workers and Rohingya displaced persons told Human Rights Watch that coastal camps with tens of thousands of displaced persons had not been evacuated as of Tuesday, and that in some cases Rohingyas were for unknown reasons being moved closer to the sea.
“Burmese authorities should focus on moving the remaining displaced people in low-level areas to higher ground, work with humanitarian agencies to provide adequate shelter for all in need without discrimination, and ensure that Muslims and other vulnerable groups are secure from attacks or other violence before and after the cyclone,” Human Rights Watch said.
According to the United Nations, at least 69,000 of the displaced live in shelters insufficient to withstand the rainy season—let alone major tropical storms—and are located in low-lying areas at risk of flooding and storm surges.
Human Rights Watch said authorities in Burma severely restrict the movement of camp residents, preventing them from leaving areas that may be in the cyclone’s path when it makes landfall.
“Vulnerable Muslim populations are at risk not only from the cyclone, but from violence at the hands of ethnic [Rakhine] communities and the very local security forces who were responsible for their displacement in the first place,” Adams said.
Human Rights Watch said that among the displaced are tens of thousands of “unregistered” Rohingyas who have not been formally recorded by the Burmese authorities, though they are still denied freedom of movement by local authorities.
Around 800,000 Muslim Rohingyas live in Rakhine state, but most of them, according to rights groups, have been denied citizenship as they are considered by most Burmese and the government to be illegal immigrants from neighboring Bangladesh.
Human Rights Watch called on international donors to pressure the Burmese government to ensure the safety of its displaced populations, including by evacuating them to safer areas and providing adequate shelter, and by permitting full and unfettered access to humanitarian aid organizations.
The call to assist the displaced communities of Rakhine state came amid reports by Burma’s state media that rescuers were searching on Tuesday for 58 Rohingyas whose boat had capsized as they fled the area ahead of Cyclone Mahasen.
The boat sank Monday night after hitting rocks along a coastal waterway and was one of seven carrying Rohingyas seeking higher ground from a camp in Rakhine’s Pauktaw township, state television said, adding that 42 people had been rescued.
Myanmar's department of meteorology on Tuesday said the cyclone was traveling through the Bay of Bengal about 510 miles (820 kilometers) from Sittwe with wind speeds of about 60 miles (100 kilometers) per hour and would make landfall on Thursday near the Burma-Bangladesh border.
Reported by RFA’s Burmese Service. Translated by Khet Mar. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.