Dozens of people are feared to have drowned after several boats carrying Muslim refugees fleeing an approaching cyclone sank in the Bay of Bengal.
In the latest of a series of hardships to fall upon the Muslim Rohingya community of western Burma, up to 50 people may be missing and eight confirmed as dead. Search and rescue operations have reportedly been launched.
“The basic information we have obtained from partners working in the area is that 42 people made it. Up to 100 people had set off,” said James Munn of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, speaking from the town of Sittwe. “They were going to find higher ground.”
Up to five boats containing Rohingya refugees set off in the early hours of Tuesday morning ahead of powerful Cyclone Mahasen, only for two of them to hit rocks and capsize near the town of Pauktaw. Although the government had encouraged people to evacuate the area, the military had apparently advised the refugees not to leave at night.
The refugees are among anywhere up to 140,000 people who either fled or were driven from their homes during a series of clashes with members of the majority Buddhist community last year.
The Buddhists of Burma’s Rakhine state say the Rohingya are not Burmese and should “return” to Bangladesh but the Rohingya say they have lived there for generations, if not centuries. They are similarly persecuted inside Bangladesh.
After almost 200 Muslims were killed last year and townships set on fire, thousands of them set up home in hastily constructed tent camps close to the coast near the town of Sittwe. They have been living in miserable conditions while the government does all but nothing to help them or address their situation.
Cyclone Mahasen is currently making its way up the Bay of Bengal. It is expected to make landfall on Thursday near Chittagong in Bangladesh before moving into neighbouring Burma.
Countless thousands of Rohingya are living in conditions that are already extremely vulnerable to flooding and the strong winds of the monsoon season. If the cyclone strikes anywhere near Rakhine, it could be devastating.
Chris Lewa, a regional human rights activist with the Arakan Project, said of the Rohingya: “These people are already extremely vulnerable.”
The case of Cyclone Mahasen is being watched very carefully by Burma experts and activists to see whether or not the Burmese authorities are prepared to act to help the Rohingya minority. Both President Thein Sein and opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi have been repeatedly criticised to failing to speak out against persecution of the Rohingya or else to end it.
In Bangladesh, the authorities have told residents of outlying islands to leave their homes. Fishing boats and other small boats were warned to remain near the coast and not venture out to sea.