Myanmar was hit by one of the strongest storms in recent years, causing significant disruptions to communications in the impoverished state of Rakhine. Reports from a major ethnic armed group and an aid worker on Monday indicated that assessing the full extent of the storm’s impact has been challenging.
Cyclone Mocha made landfall on the country’s western coast after originating in the Bay of Bengal on Sunday afternoon. While the cyclone largely spared the vulnerable camps housing over a million refugees in neighboring Bangladesh, it led to extensive flooding in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, and toppled at least one communications tower.
Reuters journalists’ attempts to reach 11 phone numbers in the region were unsuccessful, and numerous individuals reported being unable to contact their family members in Sittwe.
In anticipation of Cyclone Mocha’s arrival, around 400,000 people were evacuated in Myanmar and Bangladesh as authorities and aid agencies worked to mitigate the potential for casualties.
Khine Thu Kha, a spokesperson for the Arakan Army, which controls parts of Rakhine state, stated that all communication remained down, leaving people in distress as many roofs were destroyed. Military devices were being used as an alternative means of communication.
Benjamin Small, a consultant with the United Nations Development Programme, highlighted the difficulty in assessing the extent of the destruction due to the disrupted communications in Rakhine.
“But with reported 250 kph (155 mph) winds making Cyclone Mocha one of the strongest in Myanmar on record and the worrying images online, it’s not looking good,” Small said on his Twitter account.
Myanmar faced the devastating force of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, resulting in the tragic loss of nearly 140,000 lives, as powerful winds reached 240 kph (150 mph).
Following the military’s seizure of power from the democratically elected government two years ago, Myanmar has been thrust into chaos. A resistance movement has emerged, engaging in a multifaceted struggle against the military after a crackdown on protests.
Reuters reached out to a junta spokesperson for comment but did not receive an immediate response.
Adding to the turmoil, the military has implemented internet shutdowns in various regions, including parts of Rakhine and neighboring Chin state, which was also in the path of Cyclone Mocha.
Digital rights activist Htaike Htaike Aung expressed concerns about the significant overlap between the areas affected by the internet shutdowns and the cyclone’s trajectory. This overlap is hindering relief efforts and making it challenging to reach and assist affected individuals.
In remote and hilly Chin, which has previously seen heavy fighting between the junta and the resistance, the areas the storm swept through is under a communications blackout since the coup, the Chin Human Rights Organization said.
“We have not yet been able to establish the extent of the devastation,” said the group’s deputy director Salai Za Uk Ling. “The storm itself is a trigger for more problems as heavy rains continue and landslides and flooding tend to follow.”