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Myanmar says Cyclone Mocha official death toll at least 145

Cyclone 2023-05-19, 11:34pm


Local people ride motorbike along a roadside with damaged buildings after Cyclone Mocha in Sittwe township, Rakhine State, Myanmar, Friday, May 19, 2023. AP Photo

BANGKOK (AP/UNB) — The official death toll from the powerful cyclone that struck Myanmar has burgeoned to at least 145, including 117 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority, state television reported Friday.

It said the figure applied to the western state of Rakhine, where Cyclone Mocha did the most damage, but did not say how many storm-related deaths there have been in other parts of the country.

The accounting of casualties from the cyclone has been slow, in part due to communication difficulties in the affected areas and the military government’s tight control over information. The military government has said that unofficial death tolls surpassing 400 are false, but in the absence of independent confirmation, uncertainly remains about the actual extent of casualties and destruction.

Mocha made landfall near Sittwe township in Rakhine state on Sunday afternoon with winds of up to 209 kilometers (130 miles) per hour before weakening inland. The cyclone, the nation’s most destructive in at least a decade, brought widespread flash floods and power outages, while high winds tore roofs off buildings and crumpled cellphone towers.

“Millions of people live in the path of the cyclone and a massive effort is now underway to clear debris and provide shelter to those whose homes have been damaged or destroyed,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Thursday. “Coastal Rakhine took the heaviest hit from the cyclone with severe impacts across the northwest and some damage in Kachin (state) also reported.”

Friday’s report on MRTV state television said four soldiers and 24 local residents in Rakhine, in addition to the 117 Rohingya, had been killed, blaming the deaths on people refusing to evacuate their homes despite warnings from the authorities before the storm hit.

The authorities evacuated 63,302 of the 125,789 Rohingya sheltering in 17 camps in 17 townships including Sittwe, starting last Friday, MRTV said.

Its reports identified the Rohingya as “Bengali,” the official designation used for the minority group to suggest they immigrated to Myanmar illegally.

Rohingya have lived in Myanmar for generations, but they are not recognized as an official minority there and are denied citizenship and other basic rights.

The Rohingyas caught in the storm lived mostly in crowded displacement camps, to which they were moved after losing their homes in a brutal 2017 counterinsurgency campaign led by Myanmar security forces. Their ramshackle housing on low-lying land was battered Sunday by a storm surge.

More than 700,000 other Rohingya fled in 2017 to refugee camps in neighboring Bangladesh, which also had damage from the cyclone but reported no deaths.

OCHA’s report did not give a death toll for the storm, but said casualties and missing people were still being documented, including internal displaced people.

Theinn Shwe, a teacher from Headway Education Center for the Rohingya community in the camps, said Friday that the bodies of at least 116 people from 15 camps and villages, including 32 children and 46 women, had been given burial rites. He said reports that some had declined to evacuate were correct.

Although the authorities have provided some food and shelter assistance, there is still the need for more, he said, adding that aid from international organizations and private donors have not yet arrived.

“If the authorities give travel authorization to international organizations as soon as possible, the Rohingyas here will get help quickly. If the travel authorization is limited, the people here are likely to suffer more,” Theinn Shwe said.

OCHA said there is an urgent need for fuel to ensure key public services, notably health care and water treatment.

“Clean water supplies are a concern. Other critical needs include shelter, food aid, medical supplies, and healthcare services. In flooded areas, concerns persist about the spread of waterborne disease and the movement of landmines,” a legacy of decades of civil conflict in Myanmar.

“Unimpeded humanitarian access to affected populations in the impacted areas is critical,” it said.

Rakhine state spokesperson and attorney-general Hla Thein said Thursday that there were no restrictions on local or international organizations sending aid, an assertion that could not be independently confirmed.

A previous military government was harshly discredited when it delayed the acceptance of outside aid in 2008, when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar with a storm surge that devastated populated areas around the Irrawaddy River delta. At least 138,000 people died and tens of thousands of homes and other buildings were washed away.

State media carried extensive coverage this week of domestic efforts to provide disaster relief by the current military government, which seized power in 2021 from the elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi. It is engaged over much of the country in warfare against armed resistance forces opposed to military rule.

Several nations, including India, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States, have already earmarked monetary or material assistance to help in recovering from Sunday's cyclone.

On Thursday, three Indian navy ships carrying relief material reached Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, and a fourth ship was to arrive Friday, said India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Yangon is southeast of the cyclone-hit area and has a major international port.

“The ships are carrying emergency food items, tents, essential medicines, water pumps, portable generators, clothes, sanitary and hygiene items,” Jaishankar said in a message posted on Twitter.