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As rain from cyclone falls, Myanmar minority stay

Thursday - 5/16/2013, 3:06am  ET

A woman carries a baby outside the makeshift tented village refugee camp in Sittwe, western Myanmar, Wednesday, May 15, 2013. A mass evacuation is taking place to clear low-lying camps in coastal areas of Bangladesh and Myanmar as the approaching cyclone Mahasen is predicted to make landfall late Thursday or early Friday, according to news reports. The mass evacuation has run into a problem as members of the displaced Rohingya minority have refused to leave because they don't trust Myanmar authorities.(AP Photo)

Associated Press

SITTWE, Myanmar (AP) -- A cyclone only a day away carries wind and rain that could become deadly. But in dozens of refugee camps that spatter Myanmar's western coast, the order to evacuate ahead of the storm was met with widespread refusal.

Tens of thousands of displaced Rohingya people live in the plastic-roofed tents and huts made of reeds, and they distrust nearly any order from a government that barely acknowledges they exist.

Even as rain and wind from the edges of Cyclone Mahasen began to pelt the coast near the city of Sittwe on Thursday morning, most people camped there appeared to be staying put. Some, however, were taking down their tents and hauling their belongings away in cycle-rickshaws, or carrying them in bags balanced on their heads.

"Now we're afraid. ... We decided to move early this morning," said U Kwaw Swe, a 62-year-old father of seven who was hoping the government would transport his family. Otherwise they intended to walk to safety.

The center of Mahasen was expected to reach Chittagong, Bangladesh, early Friday morning, and depending on its final trajectory it could bring life-threatening conditions to 8.2 million people in northeast India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, according to the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

It was a Category 1 cyclone -- the weakest level. It could hit land with maximum wind speeds of about 120 kph (75 mph), said Mohammad Shah Alam, director of the Bangladesh Meteorological Department. He said Thursday that winds of 100 kph (62 mph) had already been reported west of Chittagong in Khepupara, and that the storm is moving northeast.

Bangladesh's private Independent TV reported that high winds had already flattened about 100 mainly mud-and-straw huts in Patuakhali district south of Dhaka, the capital.

Heavy rain and storm surge could prove deadlier than the wind. Bangladesh's meteorological office said the cyclone was moving so slowly it may take a whole day for it to pass the Bangladesh coast.

In Myanmar's Rakhine state, around 140,000 people -- mostly Rohingya -- have been living in crowded camps 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.

"Pack and leave," a Rakhine state official, U Hla Maung, warned as he walked through a camp near Sittwe, the state capital. Accompanied by more than a dozen soldiers and riot police, he suggested that people living there move to a nearby railroad embankment, then left without offering help.

Distrust of authorities led many Rohingya to stay where they were Thursday morning.

"We have no safe place to move, so we're staying here, whether the storm comes or not," said Ko Hla Maung, an unemployed fisherman. "... The soldiers want to take us to a village closer to the sea, and we're not going to do that. ... If the storm is coming, then that village will be destroyed."

Kyaung Wa, a cycle-rickshaw driver who has spent nearly a year in area camps after his house was destroyed in the violence, also was among the thousands who would not leave. 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.

Officials, he said Wednesday, 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.

Heavy and moderate rain and gusty winds were lashing the Bangladesh coast Thursday morning. River ferries and boats were suspended, and scores of factories near the choppy Bay of Bengal were closed.

Cox's Bazar, a seafront town in Bangladesh in the expected path of the cyclone, had rain, wind and higher than normal tides. There was flooding in low-lying areas of several nearby island towns, said Ruhul Amin, a government official. Tens of thousands of people have left shanty-like homes along the coast for cyclone shelters in schools, government buildings and about 300 hotels.

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