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Myanmar: Junta Blocks Lifesaving Cyclone Aid

Restrictions on Humanitarian Access, Supplies, Movement Threaten Millions

 Local residents walk past damaged buildings after Cyclone Mocha in Sittwe township, Rakhine State, Myanmar, May 16, 2023.  © 2023 AP Images
  • The Myanmar junta’s increasing obstruction of humanitarian aid in the month since Cyclone Mocha has put thousands of lives at immediate risk and endangered millions of people.
  • The junta’s aid blockages have hindered every aspect of the cyclone response and turned an extreme weather event into a man-made catastrophe.
  • Governments should press the junta to lift all restrictions on aid delivery without relenting on the need to hold junta officials responsible for their ongoing human rights abuses.

(Bangkok) – The Myanmar junta’s increasing obstruction of humanitarian aid in the month since Cyclone Mocha has put thousands of lives at immediate risk and endangered millions of people, Human Rights Watch said today. Since the cyclone made landfall on May 14, 2023, junta authorities have refused to authorize travel and visas for aid workers, release urgent supplies from customs and warehouses, or relax onerous and unnecessary restrictions on lifesaving assistance.

The persistence of Cyclone Mocha’s damage and resulting illness and deaths reflect the junta’s new as well as existing restrictions on aid. Donors, regional bodies, and the United Nations should press the junta to lift all restrictions on aid delivery without relenting on the need to hold junta officials responsible for past and ongoing human rights abuses.

“The junta’s moves to block aid have turned an extreme weather event into a man-made catastrophe,” said Shayna Bauchner, Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch. “Donors should press the junta to drop their politically motivated obstruction and allow desperately needed aid to reach all cyclone survivors.”

Cyclone Mocha was one of the strongest cyclones to ever hit the region, with maximum sustained winds of 250 kilometers per hour leaving a trail of destruction. The UN estimates that 7.9 million people were affected, with 1.6 million in need of urgent aid across 5 Myanmar states and regions, Rakhine, Chin, Sagaing, Magway, and Kachin. Hundreds were killed and hundreds of thousands of buildings damaged. Telecommunication outages have delayed outreach and needs assessments, further isolating communities.

Human Rights Watch interviewed aid workers and people in affected communities who described how the junta’s failed relief response has been deliberate. Humanitarian aid staff, who asked that their names not be used for fear of junta retribution, told Human Rights Watch that since the cyclone, the junta’s access restrictions have hindered their agencies’ ability to conduct needs assessments, distribute relief supplies, and provide emergency medical care. Many aid workers, local activists, and villagers expressed the view that the junta was seeking to use the cyclone response to legitimize and bolster its control.

On June 8, after weeks of appeals by humanitarian organizations for unrestricted access, the junta formalized its obstruction by issuing a blanket suspension of travel authorizations for aid groups in Rakhine State, reversing initial approvals granted in early June. The ban followed a letter requiring the UN and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) to hand over all domestic distribution of relief supplies to junta authorities. Meanwhile, villagers have continued to report massive levels of unaddressed needs, including destroyed shelters, injuries and waterborne illnesses, malnourishment, and lack of access to food and clean water.

“It is unfathomable that humanitarians are being denied access to support people in need,” the acting UN resident and humanitarian coordinator, Ramanathan Balakrishnan, said following the suspension. “Just when vulnerable communities need our help the most, we have been forced to stop distributions of food, drinking water, and shelter supplies. This denial of access unnecessarily prolongs the suffering of those without food to eat or a roof over their head.”

The junta named 18 generals to oversee “rehabilitation processes” in disaster-affected townships, led by the junta’s deputy prime minister, Adm. Tin Aung San, and its minister of border affairs, Lt. Gen. Tun Tun Naung, both of whom are sanctioned by the United States, European Union, and Canada. The generals assigned to townships in Rakhine State include Brig. Gen. Sunny Ohn, who served as deputy commander in Rakhine State during the military’s 2017 campaign of crimes against humanity and acts of genocide against the Rohingya, and Lt. Gen. Aye Win, who led two investigations in 2017 that covered up military atrocities.

The junta’s actions have been felt by those in need. “The junta isn’t doing anything on its own and won’t let international organizations help,” a Rohingya man from Thae Chaung camp in Rakhine State told Human Rights Watch. “Why they’re doing that, I don’t understand. Children are suffering. We need shelter, we need food, we need medical support. The monsoon season is just starting. We fear more rain.”

The junta’s interference in relief operations disregards multiple international calls regarding humanitarian aid, most notably the five-point consensus from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the December 2022 UN Security Council resolution, which urged “full, safe and unhindered humanitarian access.” The junta’s grave violations of international human rights and humanitarian law have only increased since the December resolution. The Security Council should urgently pass a follow-up resolution instituting a global arms embargo, referring the situation to the International Criminal Court, and imposing sanctions on the junta leadership and military-owned businesses.

The global humanitarian response has received only 15 percent of the US$887 million needed for the year, $333 million of which is earmarked for the cyclone response. Donors should increase funding while seeking ways to channel aid through local civil society groups, rather than through junta authorities, given the military’s track record of corruption and misuse of disaster assistance funding and material. Effective aid delivery hinges on engaging local partners that have the networks and experience to navigate a difficult environment, Human Rights Watch said.

“Governments seeking to help the people of Myanmar facing this or future humanitarian crises need to recognize that the military junta will only be a dangerous obstacle to reaching that goal,” Bauchner said. “The lives of countless thousands of people across the country are at risk because of generals who are determined to maintain their tight grip on power at any cost.”

Humanitarian Catastrophe

Since the February 2021 military coup, Myanmar’s junta has carried out a nationwide campaign of crimes against humanity and war crimes, deliberately blocking aid from reaching millions at risk, as a form of collective punishment. The blockages sustain the military’s longstanding “four cuts” strategy, in which the armed forces maintain control of an area by isolating and terrorizing the civilian population.

One week before Cyclone Mocha, the UN Children’s Fund, UNICEF, reported that “humanitarian access continues to deteriorate because of bureaucracy, multiple checkpoints, movement restrictions, conflicts and roadblocks.” The number of people needing assistance in the country has grown from 1 million before the coup to 17.6 million, according to the UN, with almost half the population now living below the national poverty line. About 1.2 million people displaced by conflict and insecurity were living in areas affected by the storm.

Since the coup, the junta has arrested hundreds of local aid and healthcare workers. In October 2022, it imposed a new Organization Registration Law requiring domestic and international organizations to register with the junta and submit quarterly updates on their activities, with criminal penalties of up to five years in prison for failing to comply. The law prohibits organizations from direct or indirect contact with any opposition groups, and requires organizations seeking to deliver emergency disaster relief to obtain approval from local junta administrators by submitting information on funding, materials, and proposed projects.

The junta’s obstruction of aid violates international human rights law obligations regarding the rights to life, health, and shelter. All parties to an armed conflict are obligated to facilitate rapid and unimpeded impartial humanitarian assistance to all civilians in need, and are forbidden from withholding consent for relief operations on arbitrary grounds.

Expert guidance commissioned by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) states that in exceptional situations, such as when a country is unlawfully impeding lifesaving assistance, international organizations may, without the country’s consent, “conduct temporary humanitarian relief operations to bring life-saving supplies to a people in extreme need, when no alternatives exist,” and when they would not “seriously impair the territorial integrity of the state.”

Inadequate Warning

Authorities were effectively detaining about 600,000 Rohingya in camps and villages when the storm hit Rakhine State, having long denied them freedom of movement and other basic rights, amounting to a system of apartheid. Rohingya told Human Rights Watch that while local junta authorities made evacuation announcements a few days before the cyclone, they provided little support to find shelter or transportation, and did not adequately communicate the storm’s risks. Some Rohingya said they tried to take shelter at Sittwe University and in other concrete buildings but returned home because the sites were full.

“Authorities made an announcement about an incoming cyclone but they didn’t tell us how devastating it could be,” a Rohingya man living in Rakhine’s Dar Paing camp said. “They just told people to leave their homes, but didn’t say where to go. No one from the junta or NGOs came to help move people. So people stayed in their shelters and were injured or died. We thought it would be like the other storms we face every year. We never realized it would be so catastrophic.”

From Rakhine State, the cyclone moved inland to the country’s northwest, where the civilian population has faced military attacks, displacement, movement restrictions, and internet shutdowns for over two years. Villagers from Matupi, Kanpetlet, and Mindat townships in Chin State, all under martial law, reported that the junta closed major roads after the cyclone hit. In Sagaing and Magway Regions, where almost a million people have been displaced by airstrikes and fighting since the coup, flooding has destroyed large swathes of farmland, while shifting landmines and unexploded ordnance increased the risk to villagers.

Post-Cyclone Blocking of Aid

The junta’s restrictions on access, movement, banking, and the import and transport of critical nutrition, housing, and medical supplies have hindered every aspect of the cyclone response.

In early May, in preparation for the cyclone, international agencies submitted travel authorization requests for pre-approval, a highly bureaucratic and arbitrary process. For weeks, the junta delayed issuing new travel authorizations and visas for emergency relief staff and experts, leaving many groups reliant on local partners and existing field staff who themselves were affected by the cyclone. Following negotiations, some travel authorizations were issued in early June, only to be revoked in the June 8 order blocking all existing access for aid groups in Rakhine State.

“The humanitarian access situation in cyclone-hit Rakhine State has deteriorated,” OCHA reported on June 9. “The suspension of access in Rakhine brings a stop to activities that have been reaching hundreds of thousands of people.”

Humanitarian staff reported that some access requests were briefly approved by state-level junta authorities before being overturned by the junta in the capital, Naypyidaw. OCHA, which is coordinating the emergency response, submitted a detailed two-week plan for the transport and distribution of supplies in Rakhine and Chin States to junta authorities in Naypyidaw the week of May 22. After weeks with no response, OCHA reported on June 9 that “initial approval for humanitarian distribution and transport plans across 11 townships have also been rescinded.” On June 7, the junta issued a letter to the UN asserting that beyond Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, all domestic distribution of relief supplies would be managed by the relevant state-level junta authorities.

The junta has claimed that it is overseeing an extensive, effective disaster response. Junta spokesman Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun told the BBC that the junta “has allowed local and international organizations helping recovery efforts in line with rules and regulations.” A junta diplomat in Thailand claimed baselessly in an opinion article that the junta’s early warning system and relief efforts have demonstrated its “management capability, efficient action, and ability to plan long-term.”

Residents from coastal Rakhine State said there was no support for search-and-rescue operations after the storm. “How many are still missing, no one knows,” the man from Thae Chaung camp said. “I saw many bodies afterward. I attended ten funerals including two of my relatives. The junta could have evacuated us to buildings in town, but they did not. If the diaspora hadn’t sent some assistance after the cyclone, many more Rohingya would have died.”

Local aid workers told Human Rights Watch about new roadblocks and increased scrutiny at military checkpoints, amplifying the risk of arbitrary detention, harassment, and confiscation of supplies. Junta officials have blocked staff from transporting food, housing materials, and medical goods between townships, at times demanding they turn the supplies over to the junta. The authorities have also exacted bribes at Sittwe airport from staff bringing in cash and supplies. The junta’s General Administration Department has denied local activists’ requests to collect aid for storm victims.

“The INGOs and NGOs are unable to provide assistance to us,” a man from Sittwe said. “The junta authorities told them that if any humanitarian wants to help us, they have to work with the junta. It makes it difficult for them to help us independently. So we are suffering. We do not have shelters now, or any aid.”

On May 23, junta officials detained and interrogated five ethnic Rakhine aid workers transporting relief supplies from Sittwe to Ponnagyun township for alleged connections with “illegal” media outlets. They released the aid workers the following day. On June 2, officials arrested eight aid workers at a junta checkpoint in Mrauk-U while they were trying to distribute supplies.

The Arakan Army, an ethnic armed group, along with its political wing, the United League of Arakan, has requested international support for its relief efforts, having strengthened its control across central and northern Rakhine State since the coup. Local activists expressed concerns that the junta was using the cyclone response to regain a foothold in the state, by both enforcing restrictions to undermine the Arakan Army’s efforts as well as reinforcing junta troops through its own minimal outreach.

On May 19, the junta threatened to take legal action against media reporting “false news” about the cyclone, including reports with higher death tolls. The statement claimed that 97 people died, and only because they had refused to be evacuated by the junta. The opposition National Unity Government tallied more than 450 deaths.

Shelters Destroyed

Humanitarian agencies said that in camps and villages in low-lying central and northern Rakhine State, nearly all shelters were damaged or destroyed, along with latrines, wells, and other infrastructure. “All of Sittwe is damaged,” a Rohingya man said of the Rakhine State capital. “It looks like a graveyard.”

About 140,000 Rohingya have been confined to camps in central Rakhine State since 2012, sheltered in bamboo longhouses designed to last just two years. For more than 10 years, the authorities denied aid agencies’ requests for adequate land and resources to improve safety in the flood-prone former paddy fields and low-lying coastal areas where the camps sit. Fewer than half of all camp shelters had received any repair over the past two years.

The resulting damage has been massive, with most Rohingya interviewed by Human Rights Watch saying that shelter is their greatest need. Many people who lost their houses have been living in tents made of debris along roads, in paddy fields, or in other overcrowded and ad hoc displacement sites. Markets have begun to reopen but prices for building materials and food have skyrocketed.

“So many Rohingya in the camps are living under an open sky,” the man from Dar Paing camp said. “My shelter was fully destroyed but we survived. People are using htamein [skirts] as temporary roofs. No one is coming to help us.”

In the northwest, roadblocks and ongoing fighting are preventing people from reaching towns to buy building materials, while local aid workers have been blocked at checkpoints from moving supplies and cash.

Food Aid Withheld

A humanitarian agency reported that “80 per cent of households surveyed in Rakhine stated their communities and neighbors are struggling to access food.”

Residents of some camps and villages in Rakhine State said they had received small rations of rice, beans, and oil from junta officials following the cyclone. “But it was finished after two days,” a man said. Some villagers reported being charged for rice and roofing sheets delivered by local junta officials to cover “transportation costs.” Others have relied on community donations to avoid starvation.

Aid workers said that the supplies distributed by junta officials – extremely limited in scope, without consideration of communities’ needs – appear to be little more than a propaganda opportunity, with photos splashed across state media. Local media reported that a military ceremony allegedly providing supplies to survivors in Matupi township was nothing more than a photo op, with junta officials leaving with the aid that they were photographed distributing.

The World Food Programme had been distributing food assistance but, even prior to the June 8 suspension, the organization was facing dwindling supplies, transport restrictions, and difficulty reaching northern Rakhine and the northwest due to lack of travel authorizations. “Wider access for distributions is urgently needed, along with permission to transport humanitarian supplies from in-country warehouses and into Myanmar from other countries,” OCHA reported.

Cyclone flooding has caused massive destruction to paddy fields, seed storage, livestock, and other means of agricultural and fishing livelihoods, exacerbating the vulnerability of populations already facing losses due to conflict and the country’s economic freefall. The coup triggered widespread infrastructure collapse and a severe devaluation of the Myanmar currency, leading to increasingly dire banking and supply chain crises and shortages of food, medicine, and other essentials.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that about 327,000 hectares of agricultural land were affected by flooding, and at least half of all fishing equipment in Sittwe was damaged or destroyed.

Disease, Damaged Health Facilities

Communities have been reporting outbreaks of diarrhea and skin infections, particularly among children, while health workers warn of heightened risks of waterborne and communicable diseases in the weeks ahead. “We’re facing a shortage of drinking water,” the man from Dar Paing camp said. “During the cyclone, the sea water entered our ponds. We are still tasting water like salt.”

The cyclone caused significant damage to hospitals and clinics, compounded by the junta’s severe restrictions on health care. Rohingya in Sittwe and Pauktaw camps reported little to no access to mobile health services. “So many injured Rohingya still need medical attention,” a man from Sittwe said. “Some kind doctors came from Yangon to help us, but it’s not enough.”

“Health partners continue to face persistent challenges in accessing the most severely affected areas,” OCHA reported on June 9. “Wider access is crucial to effectively extend health services, allocate resources, and carry out early warning and outbreak investigations.”

Following the suspension of its travel authorizations, Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders or MSF) Myanmar tweeted: “This will desperately hurt communities as we will be unable to open primary healthcare clinics, facilitate emergency referrals or provide much needed emergency relief items. People impacted by the cyclone … will continue to suffer enormously if this decision is not reversed.”

The UN reported that “the impact of Cyclone Mocha will deprive more children and pregnant and lactating women of access to timely and lifesaving nutrition treatment and support, contributing to increased morbidity and mortality.” Humanitarian agencies reported that the junta is denying access to even assess nutrition needs and disseminate guidance on feeding infants in emergencies.

Rates of severe acute malnutrition have spiked this year, yet only nine percent of children in need received lifesaving nutrition treatment in the first quarter of 2023, with assistance “severely hampered by access constraints, restrictive humanitarian space, displacement, and uncertainty around the importation of nutrition therapeutic products.” For 2 years, junta authorities refused to provide customs clearance for 77 cases of medicine, healthcare equipment, and nutrition supplements.

Urgent Need for Protection

“Increasing protection risks require urgent attention,” OCHA reported, “including threats to safety and security, unexploded ordnance (UXOs), sexual and gender-based violence, loss of civil documentation, looting, extortion, and robbery. New negative coping mechanisms observed include borrowing money at high interest, and children begging for food due to the lack of job opportunities, which might lead to child labor, exploitation, and abuse.” OCHA also reported cases of suicide attempts, “primarily among women and girls who were affected by the cyclone and are experiencing psychological distress after the storm.”

Landmines and improvised explosive devices that may have been dislodged by landslides and flooding pose an ongoing risk, especially as people clear debris in previously safe areas. Myanmar was one of only a handful of states to use antipersonnel landmines in 2022, with casualties spiking since the coup. Over 60 percent of landmine incidents in the first quarter of 2023 took place in areas affected by Cyclone Mocha, and landmine contamination has been reported in almost 300 villages since the storm. On May 24, one person was killed and five were injured by a landmine in Hakha, Chin State, where post-cyclone landslides had been reported.

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