YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar’s government warned Saturday that a cyclone now forming in the Bay of Bengal could slam into the country’s western coast next week, raising fears that storm surges or heavy rains could swamp low-lying camps housing tens of thousands of people who fled sectarian violence last year.
The brunt of the storm is currently barreling northwest toward Bangladesh. But its direction could shift northeast and hit Myanmar’s Rakhine state when it makes landfall at midweek, Myanmar’s Meteorology Department and humanitarian aid officials monitoring the situation said.
Around 125,000 people — mostly Muslims — are living in cramped tents and makeshift shelters in Rakhine state after two outbreaks of sectarian violence there last year. Nearly 70,000 of those displaced are in low-lying areas along the coast that are highly vulnerable to storm surges and flooding and should be moved to higher ground, said Ashok Nigam, the United Nations’ humanitarian coordinator.
“We’re very concerned,” Nigam told The Associated Press. “We need to be prepared for the worst.”
Myanmar’s southern delta was devastated in 2008 by Cyclone Nargis, which swept away entire farming villages and killed more than 130,000 people.
Kelland Stevenson, country director for the international charity Save the Children, said aid agencies held an emergency meeting Saturday to check stocks of food and shelter and draw up contingency plans.
“The information we’re getting now is that the storm is tracking away from Rakhine state, but it can change course at any minute,” Stevenson said.
And either way, he added, “there will be rain. It is likely to bring a significant amount of water.”
Saturday, state television broadcast cyclone warnings and President Thein Sein instructed regional authorities to be ready in case the storm hits the country.
Chit Kyaw, deputy director of Myanmar’s Department of Meteorology, said if the cyclone stays on its course toward Bangladesh, its arms could sweep over Buthidaung and Maungdaw in northernmost Rakhine state.
Nigam said the United Nations is urging the government to move the most vulnerable displaced people in Rakhine to higher ground in case disaster strikes.
He named three areas with high concentrations of displaced Muslims, all of them south of Buthidaung. They are the state capital, Sittwe, Pauktaw to the east, and Myebon further south.
Discussions over where to move the displaced people have become increasingly urgent in recent weeks amid fears that annual monsoon rains could swamp the camps. The issue has been complicated by widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in the region, where tensions are still running high a year after unrest between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims erupted.
The violence has largely segregated Rakhine state along religious lines, with prominent Buddhists — including monks — urging people to boycott Muslim businesses.
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