SITTWE: Rescuers were on Tuesday searching for 58 missing Rohingya Muslims whose boat capsized in western Myanmar as they fled a looming cyclone, state media said, as the storm threatened thousands living in makeshift camps.
The boat, which sank after hitting rocks in a coastal waterway on Monday night, was one of seven vessels carrying Rohingya seeking out higher ground from a camp in Pauktaw township in Rakhine state, according to state television.
“The rescue operation is ongoing because 58 people are still missing,” it said, adding that 42 people had been rescued.
Cyclone Mahasen has prompted mass evacuations in Rakhine, where about 140,000 people, mainly Rohingya, are living in flimsy tents or makeshift housing after two waves of deadly communal violence between Buddhists and Muslims last year.
Myanmar’s department of meteorology on Tuesday said the cyclone was travelling through the Bay of Bengal about 820 kilometers from the state capital Sittwe with wind speeds of about 100 kilometers per hour and would make landfall on Thursday near the Myanmar-Bangladesh border.
It threatens to worsen the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine, which was sparked by two outbreaks of deadly religious violence beginning last June that saw around 200 people killed and the homes of tens of thousands razed.
In Geneva, a spokesman for the UN’s refugee agency said millions of people living in the area could be hit, with latest estimates suggesting some 69,000 displaced people in three locations were at particular risk.
An update from Association of Southeast Asian Nation’s disaster relief arm said the Pauktaw camps housed 17,000 displaced people and were “particularly vulnerable,” adding that camps sited on rice paddies would be swamped by any storm surge.
Myanmar’s army was deployed to help evacuate those most at risk. But some international observers said the effort had come too late after months of warnings of the danger posed to the camps by this year’s monsoon.
“If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural but man-made,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The warnings have revived memories of Cyclone Nargis, which devastated Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008 and killed about 140,000 people.
Bangladeshi authorities have warned that the cyclone could barrel into coastal homes there, but have so far stopped short of issuing an evacuation order for residents in the low-lying Chittagong area, home to some 30 million people.