On Saturday, as “extremely severe” Cyclone Mocha gathered speed in the Indian Ocean and tracked a straight course for Myanmar’s northwestern Rakhine coast, Hla Tun made a critical decision.
While the vast majority of the residents of the seaside city of Sittwe, including his wife and daughter, headed inland or to higher ground, he instead taped up his windows, stocked up on food, and braced for the cyclone along with 11 neighbours who had taken shelter in his home.
Keep readinglist of 4 items
“If I stay here, maybe I can save some people if the flooding or something serious happens,” he told Al Jazeera to explain his decision.
Less than 5 kilometres (3 miles) away, in a camp where ethnic Rohingya have been confined since fleeing clashes with the state’s majority Rakhine population in 2012, Si Thu also considered his options.
His low-lying camp, overcrowded with bamboo shelters, was unlikely to withstand heavy wind and flooding, so he and his family decided to go and stay with relatives in the nearby Rohingya village of Thae Chaung.
The next day at about noon, Cyclone Mocha swept across the Rakhine coast with wind speeds of up to 250kmph (155mph). Five hours later, it had left what the United Nations described as a “trail of devastation” in its wake, particularly in Sittwe.
“It is like a broken city,” said Hla Tun, who estimated that 95 percent of the houses in the Rakhine state capital had been damaged.
Setting out on his motorbike for the town of Kyauktaw, 100km (62 miles) inland, to find his family, he encountered collapsed bridges, destroyed farms and homes, and the body of a drowned Rohingya woman washed up in a pile of mud and debris.
He worried not only about the immediate days ahead but about how communities would survive the coming year.
“Many vulnerable households will not be able to build their houses again,” he said. “This is the farming season, but it is gone.”
From the Rohingya camp of Thet Kae Pyin, Si Thu told Al Jazeera that about 95 percent of the shelters had been obliterated and that at least 400 Rohingya were believed to have lost their lives.
Survivors, he said, were now facing a dramatic increase in the price of food and basic goods, as well as urgent medical and sanitation needs.
“A lot of people were hit by different kinds of materials,” he said. “Many people have died, but there is no one to clean it, and almost every toilet in the camp was totally destroyed.”
Hla Tun and Si Thu are using pseudonyms given the risk in Myanmar of speaking to the media.
While the full extent of the cyclone’s damage is still being assessed, initial reports indicate that it was the worst natural disaster to hit Myanmar since Cyclone Nargis in 2008. The UN reported that nearly 3.2 million people were likely to have humanitarian needs as a result of the storm, which in addition to Rakhine state, severely damaged homes, infrastructure and farms in parts of Chin state, Magway and Sagaing regions.
Many people in the affected regions live in areas with an active presence of armed groups who are opposed to the military, which seized power in a February 2021 coup and has since blocked humanitarian aid to areas harbouring armed resistance, according to numerous human rights and media reports.
The UN and its partners are waiting for permission to begin formally assessing needs in six priority townships in Rakhine state and to deliver initial distribution of emergency supplies.
— Ben Small (@benjaminsmall) May 17, 2023
Even in places controlled by the military administration, including Sittwe, relief access remains uncertain. As of Thursday, humanitarian responders, including UN agencies and international aid groups, were still waiting for the military’s permission for them to go into six townships identified as the worst affected in Rakhine state or to begin distributing emergency supplies.
Many now fear a repeat of 2008, when Cyclone Nargis devastated the country’s Ayeyarwady Delta and more than 130,000 people died amid what Human Rights Watch described as the “brutal indifference of Burma’s military government to the welfare of its people”, using the old name of Myanmar.
“This is the most challenging time in my life,” said a Rakhine humanitarian worker with more than a decade of experience in the international aid sector speaking on the condition of anonymity due to concern about repercussions from his employer. “We have a lot of issues … a natural disaster [in areas affected by] armed conflict, intercommunal conflict … and where international communities are struggling to do their work effectively. We are in hell.”
‘Pushed to the brink’
Twelve interviews conducted for this report indicate massive community needs as well as significant obstacles to the response in areas racked by war and underdevelopment. In hard-hit Rakhine, the situation appears to be particularly fraught.
The people of Rakhine are no stranger to hardship.
Intercommunal violence in 2012 resulted in more than 140,000 people displaced to camps, most of them Rohingya whose freedom of movement has since been severely restricted. Then a military campaign against the Rohingya in the state’s northern townships sent more than 740,000 fleeing to Bangladesh, in what is now being investigated as genocide.
Not long after, fighting flared between the military and Arakan Army, forcing tens of thousands of mostly Rakhine people from their homes over the next two years.
And then there was the February 2021 military coup, which on top of the continuing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic prompted what the UN described in January as an “unprecedented political, socioeconomic and humanitarian crisis” across the country.
An international peacebuilding specialist focusing on Rakhine, speaking on condition of anonymity out of concern for the safety of her colleagues in the country, told Al Jazeera that the cyclone was likely to deplete people’s savings and have severe long-lasting effects. “The scale leaves me breathless when I think about the worst-case scenario,” she said. “With this additional layer of suffering and vulnerability to hit communities this hard … it will push people to take more risks just to survive because they were already pushed to the brink.”
Particularly vulnerable are the 200,000 people who were already living in camps before the cyclone, including 140,000 Rohingya and other smaller minority groups.
Most of the ethnic Rakhine internally displaced people (IDPs) living in high-risk areas were moved to safety beforehand, but the vast majority of Rohingya were left behind – a factor which probably contributed to the deaths in the Sittwe area.
The military, which administers Sittwe through its State Administration Council, claimed on the state media to have evacuated more than 85,000 people in Rakhine state, including 62,000 from IDP camps, to safer ground in the days leading up to the storm – a number which could not be independently verified by Al Jazeera.
Interviews with six people on the ground in Rakhine, including four in Sittwe, in the days leading up to and after the cyclone, indicate that while independent volunteer groups were actively involved in the evacuation process in areas under military control, including for IDP populations, most of these evacuations were done through existing community networks and referrals, and did not include the Rohingya.
As the death toll continues to rise, some are now questioning whether international aid groups could have done more in the days before the cyclone.
“In Rakhine, there are over 30 INGOs including UN agencies, and several context analysts including disaster, but I will frankly say that they are very weak in preparedness and response,” said the Rakhine humanitarian worker. “The international aid community had time to respond before the cyclone, but they didn’t do enough.”
A UN press release published the day after the storm said preparations had been made.
“Authorities and humanitarian aid agencies launched a massive evacuation plan” before the storm, it said, without going into further detail.
The cyclone-affected areas of Chin, Sagaing and Magway face additional challenges.
Since the coup, the areas have seen the emergence of numerous armed resistance groups and have endured intense military attacks, leading to widespread civilian displacement which continued even during the cyclone.
Salai Tun, a member of an armed resistance group in Chin state’s southern Paletwa township who has been granted a pseudonym due to political sensitivities, told Al Jazeera that many local people were afraid to participate in cyclone preparation or relief efforts because of the risk of being exposed to military scrutiny. “If we volunteer or do social work … the SAC doesn’t like it and watches us with a slanted view,” he said, using an abbreviation for the State Administration Council, the formal name of the military administration. “We have become weak in social work.”
48 townships are still facing military-imposed shutdowns. There is significant overlap between the shutdown areas and the cyclone path, which is a major concern,as it’s hindering efforts to reach people with warnings and coordinate relief efforts. #CycloneMocha #KeepItOn #Myanmar pic.twitter.com/A3C9y4Uaqt
— Htaike Htaike Aung (@barnyar) May 14, 2023
The UN has also repeatedly warned that landmines may have shifted during the cyclone due to heavy flooding. In 2022, 390 people were victims of landmines and unexploded ordnance in Myanmar, according to data compiled by the organisation.
“It will be very difficult to help people because we would have to go through the mountains and jungle,” said Salai Tun. “Because of exploding landmines … we can’t even try going to those places.”
Additionally, the township is one of 48 in the country, many in cyclone-affected areas, where the military has shut down the internet.
‘Nobody came yet’
Military curbs on humanitarian access are not new. For years, its restrictions on travel authorisations have posed significant obstacles for aid organisations to reach vulnerable people in Rakhine.
Since the coup, the military has also obstructed aid across the country through means including arresting and attacking humanitarian workers, hindering road access, destroying relief supplies, and shutting down telecommunications services, according to rights groups and media reports.
In October, the military tightened its regulations on the aid sector, including by requiring international and local organisations to register with it and forbidding registered groups from providing aid in areas outside of its control or to those opposed to its rule.
“Organisations have since the time of the coup been operating with their hands tied, with a lot of suspicion from the military administration, a lot of interference, restrictions,” said the peacebuilding specialist. “Now all of that is going to come back and define how these organisations are going to be able to respond to the needs of cyclone-affected communities.”
The issue not only delays the relief response, but adds to pressure on UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations, which have come under heavy criticism since the coup for their continued engagement with the military.
While these organisations have generally justified this approach as necessary to maintain a presence in the country and reach those who need help, critics have argued that it serves to legitimise the military, and is ineffective when the military is losing control over vast swaths of the country.
Resistance groups, meanwhile, say they are open to international support for cyclone relief. On Monday, the United League of Arakan, which serves as the administrative arm of the Arakan Army and claims to control more than two-thirds of the state, released a statement calling for “immediate help and assistance” from overseas. A statement from its Humanitarian and Development Coordination Office also emphasised that the current situation required “global effort and international help”.
The National Unity Government, Myanmar’s publicly-supported administration vying for international recognition as the country’s legitimate government, also released a plea for international assistance in cyclone-hit areas under its jurisdiction.
The Rakhine humanitarian worker said he would like to see new approaches to aid.
“The international community must accept the real situation on the ground. SAC is not controlling the ground, especially in the rural areas and risk areas, these are mostly controlled by local [resistance] authorities,” he said. “Both the international and local community need to find a way to work with them.”
In a message sent to Al Jazeera on Thursday morning, a Myanmar-based staff member of an international organisation, speaking on the condition of anonymity for the protection of their organisation and office’s access, expressed concern that the military was “delaying first line humanitarian assistance until it felt it could organise and portray itself as a competent and authoritative first responder” as it did back in 2008.
While international relief groups wait for formal permission from the military, said the aid worker, some were attempting to deliver aid through local organisations and charities.
“There is an internal will to deliver humanitarian aid while also considering the potential repercussions from the junta,” they said.
Back in Sittwe, Si Thu is among thousands still waiting.
“We want international communities to help us as soon as possible because, after the cyclone, we are facing all kinds of difficulties,” he said. “Until now, there is no one to help us. Nobody came yet.”