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For Years, This Christian NGO Worked with Muslims in Myanmar. Then Came Cyclone Mocha.

Long-term relationships helped the group aid the Rohingya while the UN and others were shut out.
For Years, This Christian NGO Worked with Muslims in Myanmar. Then Came Cyclone Mocha.
Image: Courtesy of Partners Relief and Development

When Hlaing heard that the “extremely severe” Cyclone Mocha was barreling toward Sittwe township on the western coast of Myanmar, she worried about her family and the 105,000 other displaced Rohingyas living in camps on the low-lying floodplains. Where could they go to shelter from the storm?

From the Thailand office of the Partners Relief and Development, Hlaing (who asked to only be identified by one name for her security) started sending updates about the cyclone’s strength and location to the group’s local contacts so they could alert the rest of the Rohingya community in the area. Team members on the ground urged people to evacuate to schools or temples that could withstand the wind. Hlaing’s family was able to shelter at a school across the street from their home.

Through the organization’s local network, Partners sent money to secure 200 bags of rice and provide for other needs ahead of the storm. “We expected the worst,” said Brad Hazlett, president of Partners. “There didn’t seem to be any way for the people to escape, and we’ve had other experiences where people were restricted from escaping the path of the cyclone.”

As the storm lashed out with 150-mph winds on Rakhine state Sunday, Hlaing continually checked Facebook for updates but saw no news about the camps.

Then on Monday night, she finally heard from Partners’ local contact: “Everything in the camp is destroyed,” he said. He sent pictures of piles of bamboo where homes used to stand, broken bridges, downed trees. He also visited her family to check up on them: They were unhurt, but the roof of their house had blown off.

The full extent of the damage caused by the storm—which was equivalent to a category 5 hurricane—is still unknown. That’s due to the difficulty accessing the worst-hit areas, the disrupted cell service, and the military junta’s obstruction of access and information.

The junta, which took power in a 2021 coup, placed the death toll at just 54 on Thursday. Yet Partners team members counted 110 dead in just seven of the Rohingya villages and camps they visited in Sittwe.

As of Thursday, the UN and other aid groups have not been allowed to access the area. Partners’ local team, on the other hand, has been able to provide food and tarps, as well as survey and publicize the damage.

Hazlett noted that Partners, a Christian aid group, can respond so quickly because of their decade-long relationship with the Rohingya community in Sittwe. By consistently showing up and providing food, health care, bathroom facilities, and schools, they’ve gained trust and developed networks that can mobilize quickly.

“We built a close relationship with the community and people in the camps,” Hazlett said, “We’ve worked very hard to improve their situation, but the situation remains so dire for them—they have no rights, they’re in camps behind barbed wire.”

‘An open prison without end’

The devastation brought by the cyclone has exacerbated an already disastrous situation facing the stateless Rohingya, whom the junta does not recognize as citizens. In 2012, violent riots led to the Rakhine, who are predominantly Buddhist and make up the majority in the state, driving up to 140,000 Rohingyas Muslims—including many living in Sittwe—out of their homes and into camps in the floodplains.

Rohingyas in the camps and nearby villages have had their freedom of movement severely restricted and are denied access to work and education. Heavy police presence, and in some places barbed wire, keep them in “an open prison without end,” as one former camp resident described it to Human Rights Watch.

After Rohingya insurgents attacked Burmese border posts in 2016, the army cracked down on the Rohingya living elsewhere in Rakhine state, killing thousands, burning villages, and driving them out of Myanmar and into Bangladesh. Nearly one million Rohingyas have fled across the border to Cox’s Bazar, once a beachside tourist destination that has now become the world’s largest refugee camp.

Now the reports released in the wake of Cyclone Mocha paint an even more devastating picture on the Rohingya who have remained in the country. The storm has destroyed 90 percent of the homes in Sittwe. Massive tidal waves swept over Rohingya villages near the Bay of Bengal, as dead bodies believed to be locals have been spotted along the coast Wednesday, according to Myanmar Now.

Outside Rakhine state, the cyclone also severely damaged homes, businesses, and infrastructure in Chin state and Magway and Sagaing regions, leaving more than three million people with humanitarian needs, the UN estimates.

In Sittwe township, survivors need food, fresh water, and tarps. The cycle destroyed the marketplace, flooded rice paddies, and damaged roads, making transportation difficult.

Yet the UN humanitarian office (OCHA) said Wednesday it was still waiting for the junta to allow them into these communities to “start coordinated field missions to gauge the full scope of the humanitarian situation.”

On Thursday, Partners posted on Twitter that it had distributed rice and tarps to 30 families and tarps to an additional 20. Hazlett noted the group can send funds directly to their team members on the ground to procure the aid.

‘Why do Christians care about us?’

Hlaing, who like most Rohingyas is Muslim, first encountered Partners in 2012 when she and her family fled their home in downtown Sittwe due to the violence. At the camp, she saw the organization provide medical aid to the many displaced Rohingyas who suffered from diarrhea and skin diseases. Soon she started volunteering with the group.

Partners is an openly Christian organization that works with and employs local Rohingyas. Hazlett noted that because the group is from the West, people automatically assume they are Christians. They will then ask, “Why do Christians care about us?” It gives him an opportunity to share that it’s “because of our faith, this is what we are called to do. Scripture is clear we are to love our neighbors.”

And the Rohingya have been receptive to that help. They see Partners’ consistency working in the community over the past decade, providing rice for Rohingyas in the camp who aren’t recognized as internally displaced persons (because they fought back against the military, Hlaing said). Partners set up toilets and hand water pumps in the camps. They built schools so children growing up in the camps could access education.

They tried to transition to sustainable development projects—helping Rohingya with farming plots of land or raising goats and chickens—yet those failed as the local Rakhine stole the fruits of their labor, claiming the land was theirs.

Hlaing noted that the Rohingya community is thankful for Partners because the group was “the first to help them when there was no support and nothing happening for them.”

‘… otherwise many more will die’

For Hlaing and others, Cyclone Mocha and the government’s response evokes memories of another devastating storm 15 years earlier: Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 138,000 people in 2008. The junta didn’t warn people about the magnitude of the coming storm, preventing them from evacuating and taking shelter. They also resisted international aid, leaving many to die from injuries or lack of basic necessities.

Hlaing noted that, this time, while many Rohingya evacuated, others stayed likely because they didn’t realize how dangerous the cyclone would be. Once again, the government didn’t provide adequate warning or preparation before the storm, reported Myanmar Now. While officials made alerts about the storm over a loudspeaker at the camps, they did it in Burmese, which many Rohingya don’t speak. The government also didn’t provide transportation or accommodations for those who wanted to leave.

The government has also followed its 2008 playbook for disaster relief. “The Burmese military are not helping them,” said Tun Khin, the president of Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK, in a statement. “The international community needs to act urgently to reach survivors with medical and humanitarian aid, otherwise many more will die.”

Hlaing also hadn’t heard any reports of the government aiding Rohingya survivors. Instead, people have tried to assist each other individually, “In the camps, everyone has lost everything, so they can’t help each other.”

Beyond Partners, other Christian groups are trying to find ways to help victims. Dave Eubank of Free Burma Rangers (FBR), which trains ethnic minorities as first responders, said that after Cyclone Mocha, their Rohingya team is providing food and aid to Rohingyas who have fled across the border to Bangladesh.

However, the FBR’s focus remains on the ongoing fighting against ethnic armed groups and armed Burmese groups. Even amid the rain the cyclone brought in, the military continued “shelling, displacing, wounding, and killing” in Karenni state, Eubank said Tuesday.

“As bad as the cyclone is, to me the much bigger story is the three million already internally displaced people since the coup and the nonstop attacks,” he said.

Eubank also worries that the junta will take money donated for disaster relief and use it for their own purposes.

Amid all the challenges facing the Rohingya, Hazlett noted that over the years, Partners has made deep, lasting friendship with the Rohingya community and continue to walk with them. And yet “it gets harder and harder. These friends ask [themselves], ‘What do we have to live for?’ They’re not ever going to be able to move beyond this situation.”

[ This article is also available in 简体中文 and 繁體中文. ]

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