Five weeks after the country was hit by a Category 5 cyclone, the military junta in Myanmar continues to stonewall the delivery of much-needed aid to affected civilians. In particular, this highlights ASEAN’s continued inability to persuade the junta to implement the Five Point Consensus.
Five weeks after Cyclone Mocha devastated central Rakhine State and parts of Chin, Sagaing and Magwe in Myanmar, the military junta still restricts urgently needed assistance to over a million affected civilians. The stonewalling of the United Nations (UN) and ASEAN in delivering much-needed aid highlights the growing isolation of the junta and tensions with ethnic armed organisations such as the Arakan Army (AA).
Mocha, a Category 5 tropical cyclone, hit the Rakhine coast on 14 May, flattening houses in the state capital Sittwe and 11 other townships in Rakhine State, devastating infrastructure and electricity supplies before moving up northwestern Myanmar and causing flooding. The ruling State Administration Council (SAC) claims an estimated 145 people were killed, but the opposition National Unity Government (NUG) estimates a much higher death toll, over 400.
There was ample warning, and hundreds of thousands of civilians were evacuated out of the path of the storm to high ground and away from the coast, but some Rohingya Muslim communities near Sittwe were not fully evacuated, causing many fatalities. UN agencies and international aid organisations stockpiled relief supplies and were poised to render assistance as soon as the cyclone passed. The UN estimates that 1.6 million people in total were affected. In the past five weeks, 380,000 have received some food aid, and 144,000 have been given shelter assistance.
However, in the immediate aftermath, aid workers, both Rakhine and international, were prohibited from fully scaling up assistance and preparing for reconstruction. The military took charge of relief efforts but also imposed restrictions on travel and cleanup efforts. Some local aid workers were detained for distributing aid, and some journalists were arrested. Nevertheless, ASEAN’s Emergency Response and Assessment Team (ASEAN-ERAT) completed a rapid needs assessment only on 30 May. Like the UN, however, the junta has restricted ASEAN from delivering aid.
The junta’s subsequent actions were unfathomable if one considers the urgent need to deliver aid quickly to affected civilians. On 1 June, the SAC ordered 2,400 schools across the state to reopen, despite widespread damage to buildings and uneven aid distribution. Rehabilitation of ponds and preparation for the annual planting season have also been impacted by limitations on the movement of people and supplies. A week later, the SAC imposed new restrictions on foreign aid operations. It suspended travel authorisations for UN officials and curtailed the distribution of foreign aid donations arriving in Yangon, including those supplied by ASEAN states.
The UN Office Coordinating Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) issued an update on 19 June. Cyclone Mocha Situation Report No.5 stated, “significant conditions, imposed by the State Administration Council, remain in place for the replenishment of relief supplies from outside the country, and some have not yet been approved.” The report added that the “unexpected retraction of initial approval for cyclone distribution and transportation plans and the temporary suspension of existing travel … has impacted the humanitarian response across the state.” As a result, many Rakhine civil society aid workers faced restrictions. In many cases, they are the actual implementing partners of the UN.
The restrictions are partly due to tensions between the SAC and the insurgent Arakan Army (AA)/ United League of Arakan (ULA). The AA evacuated an estimated 100,000 civilians and their response efforts through the Humanitarian and Development Coordination Office (HDCO). The evident success of the AA’s relief efforts suggests the progression of their administrative consolidation of much of the Rakhine state in the past three years. A tenuous ceasefire reached in late-2022 is now holding, but local aid workers report that troop buildups and resupply in several townships are increasing tensions.
Ultimately, the SAC would have garnered political kudos if they had simply stepped out of the way and allowed relief efforts to proceed unfettered. This diminishes what shards of credibility the junta has left in the eyes of the West and ahead of the next hearing of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the Rohingya genocide case.
The independent Rakhine media outlet Border News Agency reported on 19 June that SAC-aligned media were transmitting negative propaganda about relief efforts by the AA and Rohingya Muslim communities and lauding their own efforts. Countering such narratives, the AA insists the SAC is purposefully restricting aid while they assist affected communities in some eight townships. The state media continues to cover supposed rehabilitation and relief efforts by the Myanmar military, senior officers and ministers, and the large numbers of supplies being donated by regional neighbors. Yet residents in Sittwe insist that only small amounts of aid had been distributed over three weeks after the cyclone and that state-controlled media coverage is simply theatrical.
Another potential factor for the SAC’s slow and ineffectual response could be due to a paralysis of elite-level decision-making. Internal rivalries over assigning blame for the post-coup mayhem persist, and no senior official wants to be seen as making the wrong decision. Ultimately, the SAC would have garnered political kudos if they had simply stepped out of the way and allowed relief efforts to proceed unfettered. This diminishes what shards of credibility the junta has left in the eyes of the West and ahead of the next hearing of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) on the Rohingya genocide case.
Almost as much as the SAC, the UN’s credibility has been severely undermined. Despite high-level consultations to ensure cooperation, the SAC continues to rebuff the UN country team. On 13 June, interim Resident Coordinator Ramanathan Balakrishnan called the restrictions “unfathomable”, and OCHA spokesperson Jens Laerke called it an “effective ban…paralysing the distribution of life-saving food.” Two days later, Balakrishnan met Lieutenant-General Tun Tun Naing, the Minister of Border Affairs, and other SAC ministers to request full operational access. Little is known of what transpired during the meeting. It is likely that the UN officials were given short shrift.
There are echoes of similar restrictions following Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when the military junta delayed UN responses for several weeks, with an eventual compromise brokered by ASEAN. The Mocha restrictions raise questions about the efficacy of not just ASEAN humanitarian engagement through the AHA Center but the failure of diplomatic efforts in general. If the regime would not cooperate in helping people after a storm, what hope is there for solving a military-made political disaster?
David Scott Mathieson is an independent analyst working on conflict and humanitarian issues on Myanmar.