Hundreds feared dead after cyclone hits western Myanmar

Rohingya children stand by destroyed houses at Ohn Taw Chay refugee camp in Sittwe on 16 May 2023, in the aftermath of Cyclone Mocha's landfall.AFP

Hundreds of people, including Rohingya Muslims, were feared dead after a cyclone struck Myanmar at the weekend, residents and aid groups said on Tuesday, with rescue efforts hampered by damage to infrastructure.

Myanmar's impoverished Rakhine State bore the brunt of Cyclone Mocha, during which winds of up to 210 kph (130 mph) ripped roofs off homes and brought a storm surge that inundated the state capital Sittwe.

The region has a large population of Rohingya Muslims, a persecuted minority that successive Myanmar governments have refused to recognise. More than a million live in sprawling camps in neighbouring Bangladesh, having fled military crackdowns in recent years.

Myanmar has been gripped by political and economic chaos since the military seized power in a coup in 2021. Since then, fighting has raged across the country between the military and pro-democracy or allied ethnic armed groups.

Residents of Rakhine State said at least 100 people had been killed and many more were missing and feared dead, adding that aid had yet to arrive. Bangladesh faced its worst power cuts in over seven months.

Reuters was not able to independently verify the death toll.

A resident in the area, who declined to be identified over concerns for his safety, told Reuters more than 100 Rohingya were killed, based on assessments from multiple villages he said he had visited in the aftermath.

Two other residents contacted by Reuters also said a large number of people had been killed, as did a diplomatic source briefed on the situation, who did not provide details.

News portal Myanmar Now reported hundreds were feared dead, while aid groups said there were a "significant number of deaths".

Myanmar's state media said three people were killed.

A spokesperson for the pro-democracy shadow National Unity Government told Reuters: "We received confirmation of about 400 Rohingya deaths, mainly around Sittwe area".

The storm was one of the worst since Cyclone Nargis swept across parts of southern Myanmar killing nearly 140,000 people in 2008.

Nightmare scenario

A United Nations official said 5.4 million people were expected to have been in the storm's path, the majority of whom were considered vulnerable.

"It's really a nightmare scenario for the cyclone to hit areas with such deep pre-existing needs," said Ramanathan Balakrishnan at the UN's Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Shelter, water, sanitation, and relief items were early priorities, he said.

Storm damage to communications and road infrastructure and ongoing restrictions by Myanmar's military government was making it difficult to get information from and deliver aid to the affected area, non-governmental organisations said.

"It's difficult to obtain accurate or up to date information, which also makes responding to the crisis adequately even more difficult," said Manny Maung of Human Rights Watch.

Non-governmental relief organisation Partners said on Twitter: "We are scaling up our response effort to provide critical relief supplies like rice and tarps to Rohingya communities affected by Cyclone Mocha as we are able."

Myanmar's state media on Tuesday said junta chief Min Aung Hlaing had visited Sittwe to assess the damage, donate money and give instructions on the response.

Before the storm made landfall on Sunday about 400,000 people were evacuated in Myanmar and Bangladesh.

The U.N. humanitarian office (OCHA) said about 6 million people in the region were already in need of humanitarian assistance before the storm, among them 1.2 million people internally displaced by ethnic conflict.