BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Rights groups have urged the Myanmar government to immediately evacuate displaced Muslims to higher ground as a cyclone approaches western Rakhine state. The alert comes as a boat carrying 100 stateless Muslim Rohingya capsized late Monday.
Cyclone Mahasen, a tropical storm brewing in the Indian Ocean, is anticipated to make landfall near Chittagong, Bangladesh, late Thursday or early Friday, but high winds and rain are expected to also affect Rakhine state, said the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
“There are additional concerns over the potential impact of the heavy rains on Chin state in Myanmar which could lead to landslides and flooding. The weather in Myanmar has already deteriorated making boat travel difficult for the assessments and evacuations during the preparedness phase,” said OCHA’s latest report.
The Muslims in Rakhine state have been displaced since last year, when at least 192 people were killed in sectarian violence between Buddhists and Muslims. About 140,000 people, the vast majority of them Rohingya whom Myanmar does not recognise as citizens, were forced out of their homes and are now living in temporary shelters that will not withstand the impact of the storm.
Humanitarian agencies and rights groups have repeatedly warned the government of the impacts of monsoon rains and storms, but the concerns were not heeded, said Brad Adams, Asia Director of Human Rights Watch in a statement.
“If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural, but man-made,” he added.
Late on Monday, a boat carrying about 100 Rohingya struck rocks off Pauktaw township in Rakhine state and sank, with many fear drowned.
ASSISTANCE WITHOUT DISCRIMINATION
Evacuations began Monday in some areas such as Pauktaw, a port town about 27 km (17 miles) by sea from the Rakhine capital Sittwe. Although people are being moved to higher ground and away from areas likely to flood, it is unclear what type of shelter the government will provide, the U.N. said.
Rights groups remain concerned.
In a statement, Amnesty International criticised the government for not providing storm warnings to all at-risk displaced communities outside Sittwe and pressed for the Rohingya to be allowed freedom of movement.
Unlike the displaced Rakhines, who are mostly Buddhist, the Muslims are restricted from moving freely, unable to find jobs or access basic services such as healthcare, and forced to rely on aid.
“The government must facilitate assistance without discrimination, including by lifting any restrictions on movement and ensuring humanitarian groups have access to all individuals in need,” said Isabelle Arradon, Amnesty International’s deputy Asia Pacific director.
“The freedom for Rohingya to seek higher ground may be their only chance to avoid potential flooding from heavy rains.”
The U.N. has also said the temporary relocation and evacuation of the displaced to safer locations “must not result in forced returns nor further exacerbate vulnerabilities”.