One of the most powerful storms to strike Myanmar in recent years has caused severe disruptions to communications in the impoverished state of Rakhine. According to reports from a major ethnic armed group and an aid worker on Monday, the extent of the storm’s impact remains difficult to ascertain.
Cyclone Mocha made landfall on the western coast of Myanmar after originating in the Bay of Bengal on Sunday afternoon. While the cyclone largely spared over a million refugees in vulnerable camps in neighboring Bangladesh, it resulted in significant flooding in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine, and knocked down at least one communications tower.
Efforts by Reuters reporters to contact 11 phone numbers in the region were unsuccessful, and numerous individuals reported being unable to reach their family members in Sittwe.
Ahead of Cyclone Mocha’s arrival, approximately 400,000 people were evacuated in Myanmar and Bangladesh as authorities and aid agencies mobilized to minimize the potential for casualties.
“All communication is still down and people are in trouble because all the roofs are gone,” said Khine Thu Kha, a spokesman for the Arakan Army, which controls swathes of Rakhine state. “We are using military devices to communicate with them.”
Benjamin Small, a consultant with the United Nations Development Programme, said it was hard to understand the scale of destruction because of ruptured 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.
In 2008, Myanmar experienced the devastating impact of Cyclone Nargis, which claimed the lives of nearly 140,000 people with its powerful winds reaching 240 kph (150 mph).
Since the military overthrew the democratically elected government two years ago, Myanmar has been plunged into chaos, leading to a resistance movement engaged in a multifaceted struggle against the military following a crackdown on protests.
Reuters attempted to contact a junta spokesperson for comment but received no immediate response.
Amidst this turmoil, the military has enforced internet shutdowns in several areas of the country, including parts of Rakhine and neighboring Chin state, which were also in the path of Cyclone Mocha.
Htaike Htaike Aung, a digital rights activist, expressed concern over the significant overlap between the areas affected by the internet shutdowns and the cyclone’s trajectory, stating that it hampers relief efforts and the ability to reach 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.”