Myanmar and Cyclone Mahasen: Weathering Disasters in the Rakhine State

23 May, 2013    ·   3947

Nayantara Shaunik on the impact of the cyclone on the ongoing Rohingya crisis vis-à-vis larger conflict management

Nayantara Shaunik
Nayantara Shaunik
Research Officer

Even as Cyclone Mahasen made landfall on 16 May 2013 at Chittagong coast in Bangladesh, it missed the expected shift to the northeast toward Rakhine State in Myanmar. The Rakhine is home to approximately 140,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) as a consequence of the sectarian violence perpetrated on the Rohingya Muslims last year. According to official forecasts by the Myanmar Meteorology and Hydrology Department, regardless of the cyclone making full landfall into Myanmar, it would pass through the Rakhine with heavy rainfall and strong winds; raising fears that it could flood the low-lying refugee camps in the region.

In this sense, Mahasen has brought to the fore the criticality of inculcating Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) processes within larger conflict management exercises in Myanmar. How has Cyclone Mahasen affected the Rohingya crisis? Should DRR be a more proactive measure for mitigating the possible protraction of violence in the region?

Between A Storm and A Hard Place
International aid agencies such as the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) and Amnesty International amongst others, have been working to resolve the Rohingya crisis over the past year. All along, they have been consistently emphasising the probable havoc that annual monsoon rains could wreak in the affected zones. Almost 70,000 IDPs remain in makeshift shelters in low-lying areas along the coast, which are highly susceptible to tidal surges and flooding.

The advent of Cyclone Mahasen has only further compounded the issue; not so much as a one-off natural disaster, but with the immediacy it brings to the existing status quo in the Rohingya conflict. Several dynamics are vital to understanding the criticality of the situation.

On the one hand, targeted action involving the relocation of the IDPs has been complicated by the widespread anti-Muslim sentiment that took root in ethnic clashes between the Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims early last year. The government is wary of stoking violent responses to their resettlement strategy, and is thus left with few options. Additionally, several of the identified evacuation sites were reported as having inadequate infrastructure and capacity. Making matters even worse, the storm warnings were not disseminated amongst all “at-risk displaced communities” outside of the capital city, Sittwe.

On the other end, stemming from the fear triggered by these clashes, the Rohingya refused to leave their temporary camps for military-controlled barracks based on higher grounds. Instead, they demanded access to their original homes before the violence broke out in 2012. As much as the demand was underpinned by the objective of avoiding the cyclone, it was more nuanced insofar as it strove to aid in the struggle of a ‘stateless’ people trying to reclaim their identity. Their stance to not be moved to new resettlement sites that continue to segregate them from the mainstream by imposing restrictions of freedom of movement was, therefore, in congruence with their larger aspirations.

However, most pertinent of these developments is the fact that the disaster relief processes that were subsequently implemented, regardless of the opposition, proved arbitrary, disorganised; and ironically, disastrous in themselves.

In the light of these developments, the confirmation that Cyclone Mahasen was not an imminent threat to Myanmar came as a critical repose. This interim relief, however, must pave the way for several pressing issues to take precedence.

A Place Called Home
In many ways, Cyclone Mahasen has made a palpable impact without having actually made landfall in Myanmar. It has underscored the expeditious need for introducing a conflict management paradigm to DRR processes, and vice versa, by reiterating the necessity for tenably addressing the Rohingya crisis.

The incongruent incidents observed in the aftermath of the cyclone warning highlight the gaping trust deficit between the government and the Rohingya. Worse, the relief measures taken by the government were uncalculated in terms of how they accounted for the possibility of protracting violence, given the continuing tensions between the Buddhist and Muslim communities.

Ergo, confronting the prevailing discrimination against the Rohingya and recognising the violence impinged against them in 2012 is crucial now, more than ever before.

Remembering Cyclone Nargis: Lessons Yet to Be Learnt
The immense devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis in the Irrawaddy delta in May 2008 holds implications for Myanmar till date. Killing more than 130,000 people and sweeping away entire farming villages in the region, the unplanned and delayed rehabilitation process ensconced further damage. The lack of an audited DRR mechanism ensured that relief efforts were obstructed by the existing political system and a thriving black market of aid products. Further, the untimely Sichuan earthquake significantly diverted attention so that no discussions on developing infrastructure, which could aid the country in equipping itself to deal with future natural disasters, were initiated at the national level.

In the aftermath of the Cyclone Mahasen scare, the persisting ill preparedness of the country in handling potential natural disasters should take centre stage. Being in a phase of democratic transition has given Myanmar some leeway in dealing with the issue thus far. However, it also makes involving DRR in its governance an imperative both in terms of its national policy and within its ethnic reconciliation strategies.