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Myanmar minority resist Cyclone Mahasen evacuation

By Tim Sullivan

Associated Press

Published: Wednesday, May 15 2013 10:58 a.m. MDT

Internally displaced Rohingya take shelter in a building which belongs to a mosque ahead of the arrival of Cyclone Mahasen, in Sittwe, northwestern Rakhine State, Myanmar, Wednesday, May 15, 2013. A massive evacuation to clear low-lying camps ahead of the cyclone has run into a potentially deadly snag as members of the displaced Rohingya minority living there have refused to leave because they don't trust Myanmar authorities.

Gemunu Amarasinghe, Associated Press

SITTWE, Myanmar — The cyclone was only a day or two away, churning through the Indian Ocean and carrying with it winds and rains that authorities warned could quickly turn deadly.

But in dozens of refugee camps that spatter Myanmar's western coast, where tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya people live in plastic-roofed tents and huts made of reeds, an order to evacuate ahead of the storm was met with widespread refusal.

In these camps, filled with people who barely exist officially, nearly any government order is distrusted.

Around 140,000 people — mostly Rohingya — have been living in crowded camps in Myanmar's Rakhine state since last year, when two outbreaks of sectarian violence between the Muslim minority and ethnic Rakhine Buddhists forced many Rohingya from their homes.

Nearly half the displaced live in coastal areas considered highly vulnerable to storm surges and flooding from Cyclone Mahasen, which is expected to make landfall early Friday.

"They say they'll take us someplace safe," said Kyaung Wa, a cycle-rickshaw driver who has spent nearly a year in a series of camps on the outskirts of Sittwe after his house was destroyed in the violence. If his current home is little more than a hut covered with a plastic sheet, he fears ending up someplace even worse, and living deeper in the countryside and away from work.

So he and the vast majority of his neighbors insisted they would stay, along with thousands of other Rohingya along the coastline.

Officials, he said, had been trying to empty his camp for months.

"Now they say, 'You have to move because of the storm,'" he said. "We keep refusing to go. ... If they point guns at us, only then will we move."

President's Office Minister Aung Min told reporters Wednesday that the government guarantees the safety of the Rohingyas during relocation and promises to return them to their current settlement when the storm has passed.

Mahasen appeared to have weakened Wednesday, with the cyclone downgraded to a Category 1 storm, according to the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

However, the center of the cyclone was heading toward Chittagong in Bangladesh and could, "depending on its final trajectory, bring life-threatening conditions for 8.2 million people in northeast India, Bangladesh and Myanmar," the U.N. office said in a Wednesday storm update.

There was no wind or rain in Chittagong on Wednesday afternoon, but about 170 factories close to the Bay of Bengal were closed in anticipation of the storm.

Cox's Bazar, a seafront town in Bangladesh in the expected path of the cyclone, experienced drizzling rain and high tides 3 to 4 feet (about one meter) above normal. There was flooding in low-lying areas of several nearby island towns, said Ruhul Amin, a government official, and tens of thousands of people had left their homes for cyclone shelters and schools and government buildings on high ground.

Related heavy rains and flooding in Sri Lanka were blamed for eight deaths earlier this week, said Sarath Lal Kumara, spokesman for Sri Lanka's disaster management center.

In Myanmar at least eight people — and possibly many more — were killed as they fled the cyclone Monday night, when overcrowded boats carrying more than 100 Rohingya capsized. Only 42 people had been rescued by Wednesday, and more than 50 Rohingya were still missing, said Deputy Information Minister Ye Htut.

Much attention was focused on western Myanmar because of fears over the fate of the crowded, low-lying Rohingya camps.

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