The people of Myanmar are already suffering severely from brutal military rule. Now they are also affected by a cyclone. Tropical cyclone Mocha swept across the coastal areas of Bangladesh and Myanmar from the Bay of Bengal at speeds of more than 250 kilometers per hour earlier this week. At the same time, the extent of the destruction in Bangladesh, which has been expanding its disaster preparedness measures for several years, was still limited. The neighbouring country has been hit much harder. However, the restrictions imposed by the military in Myanmar prevent the flow of information and aid.

Till Fähnders

Political correspondent for Southeast Asia.

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According to the UN emergency relief organization OCHA, around 5.4 million people in Myanmar are affected by the cyclone. Among them, more than three million are particularly vulnerable. The World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that at least 800,000 people will need to be supported with food for three months. OCHA said it was in negotiations with all relevant stakeholders on access for humanitarian aid. The partner organisations are ready to start coordinated relief operations as soon as approval is granted. Aid has already been provided in some areas where projects are already underway.

"The world must exert maximum pressure"

Human rights activists are calling for the entire disaster area to be opened up for aid. "The world must exert maximum pressure on the military regime to grant humanitarian organizations unrestricted access to all affected areas," Frankfurt-based activist Nay San Lwin, who works on behalf of the Rohingya in Myanmar, told the F.A.Z. It commemorates Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 135,000 people in Myanmar. The ruling military at the time had concealed the extent of the catastrophe and initially denied access to aid organizations. "The current regime is now acting in the same way."

The Muslim Rohingya are persecuted in Myanmar, which is largely controlled by a nationalist-Buddhist military dictatorship. Of the 600,000 remaining Rohingya in Myanmar, around 140,000 live in refugee camps. According to reports from the disaster area, they were hit particularly hard by the cyclone. For example, 90 percent of the camps in Sittwe, the capital of northwestern Myanmar's Rakhine state, have been destroyed, says Nay San Lwin. "So far, no humanitarian aid has reached the affected communities, not even the Rohingya." The regime had asked the Rohingya to leave the camps only a few hours before the arrival of the cyclone, without offering them decent accommodation. Therefore, the number of deaths is higher than expected.

More than four days after the arrival of the cyclone, there are hardly any reliable casualty figures from Myanmar. The resistance government of the deputies who were ousted from power in the coup estimates that at least 400 people have died. Footage from the disaster area shows that many of the huts where people live have been razed to the ground. "The situation is extremely desperate in the areas that were directly in the path of the cyclone. It has destroyed entire communities and villages," said Stephen Anderson, WFP's Myanmar Country Director. However, communication with the territories is very patchy. Access to the areas themselves is also difficult, as the cyclone has destroyed bridges. In addition to Rakhine, the Sagaing and Magwe regions, where resistance to military power is particularly strong, are also affected.

Criticism of generals grows

Slowly, however, a clearer picture of the extent of the disaster is emerging, according to Anderson. Initial coordination difficulties are normal, he said, and the situation in Myanmar is complex. After all, his organization has already been able to provide food to several thousand people in Sittwe and several hundred in the Magwe region. More help is expected to follow shortly. "We've gotten approval — something that's called a travel permit here — to deliver support and aid to the most affected communities," Anderson says. For this, however, the organization needs more resources: "We urgently need support from the international community. It's going to be a big challenge. The topic will soon disappear from the news."

Earlier, Tom Andrews, UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Myanmar, had pointed out that many other aid organizations had not received the travel permits. "This is extremely disturbing," Andrews said, according to CNN.

In this situation, criticism of the generals is growing. No one can now hope that negotiations can be held with the military regime in Myanmar, wrote Scot Marciel, a former American ambassador to Myanmar, on Twitter. "The refusal to allow humanitarian aid for the victims of Cyclone Mocha is the straw that breaks the camel's back," the former diplomat said. In Southeast Asia, the regime in Myanmar is the worst since the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.