When Cyclone Mocha barrelled through Rakhine State last month, Ko Tun Myint* and his family were unprepared.
“It was announced that there would be a storm, and they told us to relocate, but most of us thought Mocha wasn’t serious,” he said. “That’s why many of us stayed in the village.”
Only one day before the storm, on May 13, regime officials gave evacuation orders to residents of Thae Chaung village (also called Sitha Del by the Rohingya) in western Sittwe Township. Home to 160 houses and around 1,000 Rohingya, the village is perched dangerously beside the Bay of Bengal.
Having weathered previous storms, Tun Myint and his family of five decided to face Mocha from their small bamboo shelter, but it was no match for the winds that soon reached over 250 kilometres per hour.
“At 12pm, the wind was blowing and it started raining. At around 2pm, the wind grew stronger,” Tun Myint recalled. Eventually, the shelter was torn apart, leaving the family to face the elements.
“We grabbed onto a tree near the house. That’s where my six-year-old son was blown away,” he said. “My son died in the storm.”
While many parts of Rakhine suffered damage from the storm, Sittwe and Rathedaung townships in the north of the state were hit the hardest. Rohingya Muslims, who have long faced systematic discrimination and violence from the central Myanmar authorities, suffered the most.
“Most of the dead are Rohingya,” said U Than Oo, from a volunteer relief group in Rakhine.
Up to 140,000 Rohingya have been confined to flimsy shacks in camps for internally displaced people in Sittwe and several other townships since the state was rocked by communal violence in 2012, which rights workers have long claimed amounts to apartheid. Others, like Tun Myint, continue to live in villages but face similar restrictions on travel and access to basic services.
“The conditions of apartheid the Rohingya people have had to endure since at least 2012 are a significant factor behind the deaths, injuries and destruction following Cyclone Mocha,” said Amnesty International in a report this month.
Rohingya survivors told Frontier the regime also did little to inform residents of the dangers of the storm, give them very short notice for evacuations and provided few places for them to shelter.
Counting the dead
Ko Pin Laung* is a Rohingya activist working with local communities to gather an accurate death toll after the chaos of the storm washed away entire villages and destroyed communications lines.
“Many people died in the villages near the sea,” he told Frontier.
His group says they have documented more than 150 confirmed Rohingya deaths, though the toll may be slightly higher.
“At the time of the storm, the water rose up to 30 feet in places close to the sea. Most of them died trying to escape when the water rose,” he explained. “Others died because their shelters collapsed.”
Pin Laung said they have corroborated 136 deaths in Sittwe alone and at least 20 more in Rathedaung. This is higher than the junta’s claim of 117 Rohingya deaths – out of a total of 145 storm-related fatalities – but lower than some of the other estimates.
The parallel National Unity Government claimed over 400 Rohingya died in the storm, while Rohingya activist Ro Nay San Lwin said the toll may be as high as 500.
Pin Laung said this was unlikely. “After the storm many Rohingya were missing but now most of them have been found by their families,” he said, estimating that the upper limit would be around 200 deaths, still nearly double the military regime’s count.
“The military pressured those in charge of the Rohingya camps to not tell anyone about the list of dead,” Nay San Lwin claimed to Frontier, citing teams on the ground.
Pin Laung said he has also seen evidence of this.
“For example, in Fortiya Del village, locals said 27 Rohingya died. The village administration team said 17 people died,” he alleged.
Nay San Lwin said that under this pressure, Rohingya groups operating on the ground are prioritising the provision of food and other emergency aid, rather than focusing on the death toll, which the regime has politicised.
“If the death list is properly counted, people may be arrested. The dead are gone. People living now must be prioritised,” he said.
‘If we die in the storm, they don’t even need to use bullets’
Even according to the junta’s own statistics, the vast majority of the victims of the cyclone were Rohingya.
“Rohingya in the internment camps are subjected to increased vulnerabilities and hazardous exposure to disasters attributable to semi-permanent infrastructures that were built by humanitarian organisations on a temporary basis (at the instruction of the Myanmar government),” Amnesty said.
Myanmar authorities have long insisted the camps were temporary while making little effort to find a long-term solution, leaving Rohingya languishing in flimsy makeshift homes.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs estimated that 85 percent of shelters in Rohingya IDP camps were destroyed in the storm.
Ko De Pa* has been living in Sittwe’s Thet Kay Pyin camp since being displaced in 2012. He said residents read about the coming storm in the news long before regime authorities warned them, and evacuation efforts only began on May 13, one day before the storm landed.
“The evacuation was weak,” he said, claiming officials only prepared two storm shelters in Sittwe. “They only had space for around 300 people in those two shelters.”
Others could take refuge at public schools and the university, but De Pa said altogether there was only enough space to accommodate around 10,000 people, out of more than 100,000 Rohingya estimated to be living in the township.
“It wasn’t enough at all,” said De Pa.
Because of this, the elderly, children and women were prioritised for the storm shelters, but even many from those vulnerable groups couldn’t find space. De Pa’s wife and children found safety in the Sittwe home of a close friend, who is also Rohingya, but De Pa weathered the storm alone back in the IDP camp.
“There were already a lot of people in my friend’s home, so I went back to the camp,” he said.
The regime announced that it relocated some 63,000 Rohingya and claimed those who stayed behind were given the option to leave but refused.
“That’s just a lie,” said Pin Laung. “If the regime claimed they relocated 5,000 to 10,000 Rohingya we could accept that.”
In most cases, sources told Frontier authorities only gave Rohingya around 24 hours’ notice. While insufficient at the best of times, the short notice was compounded by the fact that many Rohingya who had spent the last decade confined to the camps had no idea where to go.
“They don’t know what’s going on outside of their camps anymore,” said Nay San Lwin. “They ordered them to move immediately, but where can they go? They should have prepared a week in advance to relocate… Nothing was adequately prepared. The military is fully responsible for the deaths of these Rohingya.”
Both Nay San Lwin and Pin Laung accused the military of intentionally leaving Rohingya to die, having massacred or driven many of them from Rakhine in previous years.
In 2016 and 2017, the military launched a series of brutal “clearance operations”, killing thousands of Rohingya and expelling hundreds of thousands to neighbouring Bangladesh. The crackdown is now at the centre of a case at the International Court of Justice, where The Gambia has accused Myanmar of genocide.
“They ignore us on purpose because we are Rohingya and they don’t like us,” Pin Laung said. “Rakhine people could move to other townships before the storm hit, while Rohingya could not,” he said, referencing the need for many Rohingya to seek permission from local authorities even to travel within Rakhine, in a process beset by delays, corruption and arbitrary denials.
Nay San Lwin said this is another facet of the military’s long-running “genocide” of the Rohingya. “They are always trying to drive the Rohingya out of this country,” he said. “They think if we die in the storm, they don’t even need to use bullets to kill us.”
‘No help has come’
Ko Thein Kha*, a Rohingya who lives in Buthidaung Township further north in the state, said he was told to evacuate two days before the storm, but this was of little use amid a lack of support.
“Where should we go? There is no place to go. So, we stayed,” he said. “I was there when the storm hit. The wind was so strong that the walls came apart. The children were scared and crying.”
He and his family sheltered at a friend’s house in the middle of the village that was more insulated from the strong winds. Once the dust had settled, 250 of the 300 houses lay damaged. Many villagers also lost cows and buffalo they had used to plough and harvest crops, and also as a source of food.
“We couldn’t take care of our cattle during the storm. Everyone’s cows died. There are hundreds of dead animals,” said Thein Kha.
Local water sources are also contaminated.
“The water is soaked in salt,” said Thein Kha. “We have no food, no water and no house. I’m sleeping on the ground.”
More than 20 days after the storm hit, most Rohingya said they had still not received any food or medical aid from the regime or the international community.
“We haven’t heard anything yet,” said De Pa. “No help has come to our village.”
Thein Kha said his village was able to contact an international NGO also based in Buthidaung, which said they wanted to help, but were blocked by the State Administration Council, as the regime is officially known.
“Not only are they not helping us, but they have also banned others from helping,” Pin Laung said of the junta. “Even before the storm, Rohingya mainly relied on INGO support. But now the SAC won’t allow NGOs, INGOs or CSOs to help.”
“I truly believe this is because this government is anti-Rohingya and anti-Muslim.”
The cyclone came just ahead of the annual rainy season, which will bring almost daily deluges to Rakhine in the coming months.
But De Pa says his home has lost its roof and some of its walls.“The top of our house had to be covered with plastic. We covered the sides with plastic bags,” he said.
“When it rains, we get wet. When the sun shines, we get burned. I want to say to the government and international community, please help us quickly. We are refugees of environmental disasters.”
*denotes a pseudonym for security reasons