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Cyclone Mocha Devastates Myanmar’s Rohingya

‘Apartheid’ Camps Left Tens of Thousands Trapped, Exposed

Rohingya women at their shelter destroyed by Cyclone Mocha in Basara camp in Sittwe, Myanmar, May 16, 2023. © 2023 Sai Aung Main/AFP via Getty Images

Cyclone Mocha made landfall in Myanmar’s Rakhine State on Sunday, its 250 kilometer per hour winds tearing through low-lying shelters along the Bay of Bengal. One of the strongest cyclones to ever hit the region, Mocha brought flooding and damage to millions of people in its path.

The state capital, Sittwe, bore the worst of the destruction, with almost no home left intact. Verifying tallies of the dead and missing, currently estimated in the hundreds, has been hindered by lingering communication blackouts. Humanitarian workers are reporting extensive cyclone damage across central Rakhine, where about 140,000 of Myanmar’s 600,000 Rohingya Muslims have been confined to camps for more than 10 years, with some camps near fully destroyed.

What we know about these camps tells us that the damage and loss of life incurred was both foreseeable and avoidable.

For decades, Myanmar authorities have deprived the Rohingya of their rights and freedoms and eroded their capacity to survive. The camps in Rakhine State were set up in 2012, ostensibly for those displaced by communal violence, but in effect serving the government’s oppressive regime of apartheid, persecution, and imprisonment. Families were confined to bamboo longhouses, designed to last just two years. The authorities denied aid agencies’ requests for adequate land and resources to make safer the flood-prone former paddy fields and low-lying coastal areas where the camps sit.

The resulting living conditions are, by design, squalid, contributing to a growing tally of preventable deaths and annual threats from extreme weather. With new blockages on aid imposed since the 2021 military coup, fewer than half of camp shelters had received any repair over the past two years.

Initial reports say that Myanmar’s military junta has impeded the disaster response to all affected areas this week, with bureaucratic constraints hindering aid agencies’ travel authorizations and customs clearances.

“No government, no organization has come to our village,” a Rohingya man told AFP. “We haven’t eaten for two days.… No one has even come to ask.”

Brad Hazlett of the relief organization Partners reported that they were witnessing “a large-scale loss of life in the camps.”

In the critical days ahead, as Rohingya and others clear debris and search for missing relatives, foreign governments should demand the junta lift all blocks on lifesaving aid delivery. In the longer term, they should be charting a path toward holding Myanmar’s military to account for the oppressive conditions that left Rohingya trapped and exposed in the eye of the storm.

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