The suspension by Myanmar’s military junta of humanitarian access in Rakhine state less than a month after Cyclone Mocha battered the region is disproportionately affecting those who were already displaced and living in difficult conditions, many of them Rohingya Muslims.
“We didn’t see it coming,” a senior aid official, who asked for anonymity for security reasons, told The New Humanitarian, referring to the 8 June decision by the military-led government, known as the State Administration Council, to ban aid groups’ access to affected areas.
Some local NGOs have since been given access; but only for development activities – not to assist in cyclone response. However, many of these groups have never had a presence in the Rohingya camps, the official said, adding: “We're very concerned about the potential for further avoidable suffering, particularly amongst those most vulnerable communities.”
The official death count from Cyclone Mocha stands at 145, with 117 of those killed members of the Muslim Rohingya minority. But the senior aid official said local community members believe more than 400 are likely to have died, with their camps in need of extensive repairs.
According to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, as of 15 June, at least 144,000 people had received shelter and other relief items in Rakhine, with 380,000 people getting food aid. But these humanitarian efforts have all now had to grind to a halt.
Several aid agencies were still mobilising their responses when the junta revoked approvals for both local and international organisations to deliver aid in Rakhine state and cancelled travel authorisations. No reason was cited, but the move comes amid a civil war between the military and forces resistant to the junta’s February 2021 coup.
The suspension means aid agencies cannot deliver vital supplies within the state, which is home to three million people, many of them residing in dire camp conditions.
In the meantime, refugees like Maung Thein*, who lives in a camp in a coastal area of Rakhine state, wait for supplies and support that may never come.
The situation is desperate.
“With the tarpaulin sheets I kept before the storm, I built a temporary shelter where my whole family is staying,” Thein said, adding that they have had to share food since Cyclone Mocha barrelled through on 14 May and left some households with only the clothes on their backs.
Politicisation of aid
The State Administration Council (SAC) requested that agencies turn over supplies for distribution by the military, but rights groups and international organisations say the military’s poor treatment of civilians makes them an untrustworthy partner.
In the first 20 months of its occupation, the military was accused of killing more than 3,000 civilians and the security forces have made over 23,000 arrests, many of them pro-democracy activists or those accused of opposing the regime.
“If the Myanmar de facto authorities can suspend us in Rakhine today, then they could very well decide to suspend us in other parts of the country where they don't want agencies to operate in the future.”
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, told The New Humanitarian he doubted the military’s commitment to helping those in need.
“I’d expect we'd see some of the aid being sold on the black market because the military doesn't care, they'll just sell it,” said Robertson. He also fears that groups connected to or supportive of the military would get priority over those who need the assistance the most. “It'd be politically weaponised,” he said.
The military implemented a similar aid ban in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis hit. Aid delivery from international agencies eventually resumed, but relations at the time were different. At the end of 2022, the SAC passed a law making it harder for NGOs to operate in Myanmar and prohibiting the provision of aid to groups the junta considers the opposition. Earlier this year, the country’s exiled government, the National Unity Government, also "urged" aid groups to seek authorisation before operating in the areas of the country it controls.
The senior aid official is concerned that this latest ban could set a dangerous precedent.
“If the Myanmar de facto authorities can suspend us in Rakhine today, then they could very well decide to suspend us in other parts of the country where they don't want agencies to operate in the future,” they said.
Talks are underway with the UN to try to resume aid delivery in Rakhine. In the meantime, Robertson suggested that international and local NGOs work to deliver aid through local civil society organisations.
Unknown new needs on top of old needs
As of the end of 2022, more than 1.5 million people were already displaced in Myanmar, including more than 140,000 Rohingya, an ethnic minority from Rakhine state who fled mass persecution in 2012 and 2017. Others have been newly displaced since the military coup in 2021 and the subsequent conflict.
Mocha tore through several displacement camps with its 250 km/h winds as it hit Rakhine. It was less powerful when it hit parts of neighbouring Bangladesh, where almost a million Rohingya driven out by military crackdowns in Myanmar are living as refugees.
To respond, a humanitarian appeal of $333 million was launched, aiming to support 1.6 million people across the areas affected in Myanmar, which also include Chin, Sagaing, Magway, and Kachin.
Alexander Matheou, Asia-Pacific director for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told The New Humanitarian that communities in Myanmar were already vulnerable before Cyclone Mocha, due to the high levels of food insecurity, displacement, shaky livelihoods, and difficulties accessing healthcare.
A comprehensive needs assessment has still not been conducted since the storm, making it hard to know how many people are affected or what their specific needs are to inform a coordinated humanitarian response, Matheou added.
Across the country, some 17.6 million people were already expected to require assistance in 2023 prior to the cyclone, up from 14.4 million in 2022.
More than 1.2 million people were newly displaced in Myanmar in 2022 compared to 430,000 in 2021. The UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR, cites growing violence since the February 2021 coup as a driving factor.
Time to take a stand?
Robertson said the international community must take a stance against the junta’s interference in aid efforts.
“Everybody's gnashing their teeth and folding their hands, but no one is prepared to take a step to confront this,” Robertson said.
“The UN country team should basically be saying, ‘we're going to send the humanitarian systems in there… If the Myanmar military wants to stop us and seize the supplies, we'll do that and then we'll see what happens.’ But no one is prepared to do that.”
“The appeals tend to be very low coverage, lack of interest, too complex to really understand, too many limitations on what's possible, making it very difficult to plan in advance and to guarantee delivery to donors in timelines.”
It’s this context, of uncertainty and complexity, that deters donors from investing in Myanmar more generally, said an aid worker, who asked for anonymity for security reasons.
The crisis in Myanmar remains chronically underfunded. OCHA’s 2022 Humanitarian Response Plan for the country only received 42% of its required $826 million. In contrast, support via a HRP for Ukraine reached $3.8 billion, 80% of its target.
“The appeals tend to be very low coverage, lack of interest, too complex to really understand, too many limitations on what's possible, making it very difficult to plan in advance and to guarantee delivery to donors in timelines,” said the aid worker. All of this deters donors from investing, they added.
Across the border in coastal areas of Bangladesh, Mocha also hit communities hard. More than 2.3 million people were affected and some 12,000 homes were destroyed.
“We are living in hell,” said Mohamed Zonaid, a Rohingya photo and video journalist who has lived for six years in Cox’s Bazar in the largest refugee camp complex in the world. He said thousands of shelters, made of bamboo and tarpaulin, were destroyed.
But Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh were living in difficult conditions long before Mocha made landfall. “Even when it rains heavily, so many of our shelters get destroyed,” Zonaid said. “We worry so much about our future here.”
*Name changed for security reasons.
Edited by Ali M. Latifi and Tom Brady.