BANGKOK (AP) — Myanmar’s military government has rescinded its approval for international organizations to distribute food, shelter, and medicines to thousands of residents of cyclone-hit areas in the country’s west, a UN agency said Friday.
Cyclone Mocha hit the coastline of Bangladesh and Myanmar in mid-May with winds of up to 209 kilometers (130 miles) per hour. The damage was worst around the coastal city of Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s Rakhine state, but was also severe as the storm moved inland into Chin state.
The military authorities also suspended travel authorizations for international humanitarian organizations, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a situation report. It said the suspension of aid activities “could not have come at a worse time” because of the arrival of the annual monsoon season.
The report did not say why the military government’s Disaster Management Committee suspended the travel authorizations.
Myanmar’s military has long kept access to many parts of the country under tight restrictions, especially areas seen as sensitive because of tensions with ethnic minorities, as is the case with Rakhine, where a brutal counterinsurgency campaign in 2017 drove more than 700,000 members of the Muslim Rohingya minority to flee to neighboring Bangladesh.
Despite a dire need for help, foreign aid and journalists were not allowed into Myanmar in the immediate aftermath of Cyclone Nargis in 2008, when more than 100,000 people were killed.
Cyclone Mocha killed at least 148 people in Rakhine. It brought flash floods and power outages, tore roofs off buildings and crumpled cellphone towers. Myanmar state media said more than 186,000 buildings were damaged.
UNOCHA said about 1.6 million people were heavily affected by the cyclone in Rakhine, Chin, and Kachin states, and in Sagaing and Magway regions. It said more than 113,200 people have received shelter and other relief from humanitarian organizations, while food assistance has reached more than 293,800 people in Rakhine alone.
There has been concern that many people whose houses were damaged by the cyclone might be without adequate shelter during the monsoon. The Meteorological Department said Thursday that the monsoon has advanced into central Myanmar.
“Heavy rains and some flooding were observed in areas that were already heavily impacted, further hampering the recovery process for people whose coping capacities are already stretched to the limit,” UNOCHA said.
An official with an international humanitarian organization operating in Rakhine told The Associated Press that his group received a letter announcing the suspension of travel authorizations from a Rakhine state government office on Thursday. He said the restriction was issued just a day after the same office had issued the first travel authorization to international aid agencies since the cyclone to deliver aid. He asked that he and his organization not be identified to avoid pressure from officials.
“The letter refers to all international organizations in Rakhine state. I don’t know why they suspended travel authorization. At a time when emergency aid is urgently needed, this ban prevents aid from reaching everyone in need in a timely manner,” the official said.
The letter, seen by The Associated Press, was signed by Rakhine Security and Border Affairs Minister Col. Kyaw Thura.
Although international organizations are no longer allowed to travel, they say they will try to deliver supplies to affected areas with the help of local charity organizations that serve as their humanitarian partners and are still able to travel.
The members of three local charity groups told The Associated Press by phone that they have not received new instructions from the authorities but believe they must be more careful in transporting aid when they pass military checkpoints. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they fear reprisals from the authorities.
In Rakhine, some local relief organizations have run into problems when delivering assistance. Five people including Wai Hun Aung, a writer who is directing relief work in seven townships in northern Rakhine, and two rescue workers from Yangon were arrested at a military checkpoint in Sittwe on 23 May while traveling to deliver aid. They were released after a few days.
Myanmar navy and air force units, along with domestic charity groups, have delivered some rice and other assistance to victims, but only about 20% of the population in cyclone-hit areas has received full assistance, according to members of the charity organizations.