Sittwe — Several overcrowded boats carrying more than 100 Rohingya Muslims trying to escape an approaching cyclone capsized off the coast of western Myanmar, and only 42 were known to have survived, the United Nations said on Tuesday.
Eight bodies have been found so far, and more than 50 other people who were aboard are feared dead, said James Munn, an official with the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
The Rohingya, a long-suffering minority, had been living in camps in Myanmar's Rakhine state after fleeing sectarian violence last year. They crowded into as many as five boats that left Pauktaw township late on Monday, said Munn. Reports indicated that one of the boats was towing the others and hit a rock, causing all to capsize overnight.
The accident came amid a wider evacuation ahead of Cyclone Mahasen, which the UN says could swamp makeshift housing camps sheltering tens of thousands of Rohingya.
Myanmar state television reported on Monday that 5 158 people were relocated from low-lying camps in Rakhine state to safer shelters. But far more people are considered vulnerable.
Around 140 000 people — mostly Rohingya — are living in flimsy tents and makeshift shelters in the region after two outbreaks of Buddhist-Muslim violence there last year, according to the UN humanitarian affairs office.
Ashok Nigam, the United Nations' resident and humanitarian co-ordinator, said this week that nearly 70 000 of those displaced should be moved to higher ground. They are in low-lying areas along the coast that are highly susceptible to tidal surges and flooding.
Cyclone Mahasen is expected to make landfall late on Thursday or early on Friday. It is heading toward Chittagong, Bangladesh, but could shift northeast and deliver a more direct hit to Rakhine state, according to Myanmar's Meteorology Department. Heavy rains and strong winds are expected to batter Rakhine in any case.
Aid groups have issued warnings for weeks that annual monsoon rains could cause flooding and spark disease outbreaks, wreaking havoc on displaced people in their camps and spark disease outbreaks.
Myanmar's southern delta was devastated in 2008 by Cyclone Nargis, which swept away entire farming villages and killed more than 130 000 people.