For 70,000 displaced Rohingya Muslim refugees in western Myanmar, the choice is simple: wait until Cyclone Mahasen swallows their low-lying camps on Wednesday (May 15), or run back to higher ground they were once violently forced from.
Human Rights Watch, which for months has been issuing warnings about dangers posed by the oncoming rainy season, is clear on its position. Brad Adams, Asia director, said: “If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural, but man-made.”
Cyclone Mahasen is travelling towards Myanmar and Bangladesh over the Bay of Bengal with wind speeds of at least 45 knots (85 kilometers per hour). The US Navy’s Joint Typhoon Warning Center expects those speeds to reach 70 knots as the cyclone strikes land. While Mahasen is not on the scale of Cyclone Nargis, which in 2008 killed more than 130,000 people, it may still bring tidal surges, thunderstorms, violent winds and flooding. While 8.2 million people are potentially at risk, the greatest danger is to vulnerable coastal refugee camps in Myanmar. And there’s already a death toll: At least 50 Rohingya Muslims are missing since boats trying to evacuate refugees capsized on Monday off Myanmar’s western coast.
Rohingya are a minority in Myanmar and have been the target of religious and ethnic violence which has killed over a hundred people and displaced 140,000 since the country emerged from military rule in 2011. Anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim violence has spread across the country since a flare-up in June last year and Human Rights Watch has condemned Buddhist monks, state politicians and security forces for being complicit in a campaign of “ethnic cleansing.”
This makes leaving the heavily guarded refugee camps to avoid Cyclone Mahasen a risky prospect, particularly as many of the refugees are desperately poor and homeless. The UN, which is working with the Myanmar government to evacuate the vulnerable, reports that some communities have refused to use military vehicles or shelter in military barracks. The government and aid agencies are scrambling to evacuate whomever they can, and the government’s willingness to turn to foreign help makes a welcome contrast with 2008, when foreigners were banished and thousands were left destitute. But if Mahasen takes more lives, politicians will be facing some tough questions about why they did not act sooner.