Myanmar raises death toll from Cyclone Mocha to 54, but full extent of damage still unknown
BANGKOK (AP) — At least 54 people were killed and more than 185,000 buildings damaged in Myanmar by a powerful cyclone last weekend, state television MRTV reported Thursday.
Communication difficulties in the affected areas, where infrastructure was already poor, and the military government’s tight control over information leave the actual extent of casualties and destruction unclear.
Cyclone Mocha roared in from the Bay of Bengal on Sunday with high winds and rain slamming a corner of neighboring Bangladesh and a wider swath of western Myanmar's Rakhine state. It made landfall near Rakhine’s Sittwe township with winds of up to 209 kilometers (130 miles) per hour before weakening to a tropical depression Monday as it moved inland.
The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said widescale destruction of homes and infrastructure was seen throughout Rakhine state.
“Urgent needs include shelter, clean water, food assistance and healthcare services,” it said. “There are rising concerns in flooded areas about the spread of waterborne disease and the movement of landmines,” a legacy of civil conflict that has been going on in Myanmar for decades.
“The impact of the cyclone was also felt heavily in the country’s northwest where houses were blown or washed away. Strong winds and rains have also damaged camps for displaced people in Kachin state,” the U.N. agency said.
Three Indian navy ships carrying relief material reached Yangon, Myanmar's largest city, on Thursday and a fourth ship will arrive Friday, said India’s External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Yangon is south 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 tweet.
India has been the first responder to climate-related disasters in the region.
Refugee camps in Bangladesh, where more than 700,000 members of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya minority fled in 2017 to escape a brutal counterinsurgency campaign, missed the brunt of the storm with no reported deaths, thanks in part to a well-organized evacuation, but housing was severely damaged.
Many of the Rohingya who stayed in Myanmar after being made homeless by the 2017 attacks by security forces were settled in crowded displacement camps on the outskirts of Sittwe, where their ramshackle housing on low-lying land was reportedly swept away by the storm surge.
There are fears that there could be many fatalities in the Sittwe camps, but independent confirmation is difficult because of post-storm conditions and long-standing government restrictions meant to isolate the camps.
“Bridges have collapsed to the west of downtown Sittwe following #CycloneMocha, leaving only one access route to camps in the area,” Ben Small, who works for the U.N. Development Program in Myanmar, said on Twitter. “This further hinders humanitarian access. They urgently need repairing.”
A Rohingya who does relief work at one of the camps said by phone Thursday that they were instructed by the authorities not to provide information to the media.
Rakhine state spokesperson and attorney general Hla Thein issued a qualified denial of reports that hundreds of people had died, saying that only 46 deaths in the state had been confirmed so far, from other ethnic groups as well as the Rohingya. He said confirmation of further deaths would require investigations, including inspections of burial places.
Hla Thein said the authorities had warned people in the camps to move to safer places days before the storm hit, but some stayed until seawater poured in, wreaking destruction. He said the government was trying to send relief supplies to affected areas and there were no restrictions on relief organizations in sending aid, an assertion that could not immediately be confirmed.
A leader of a local charity group helping to collect data about casualties inside the Rohingya camps and nearby villages said Thursday 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 requested that neither he nor his organization be identified because of possible punishment by the authorities.
The charity worker said reports of higher death tolls may have resulted from misunderstandings due to communication breakdowns which also prevented the authorities from getting an accurate count.
The Associated Press could not independently confirm any of the casualty figures.