As Burmese President Thein Sein prepares to travel to the United States next week — the first visit to the country by a Burmese leader in 47 years — a potential humanitarian disaster is looming on the horizon back home.
Thein Sein’s scheduled visit on May 20 has already been controversial, coming as it does after a recent surge in ethnic violence involving Buddhists, Rohingya Muslims, and other minority groups. But now many of the Rohingya and other Burmese Muslims who’ve been displaced by the violence and now live in temporary camps are threatened by Cyclone Mahasen, which is approaching the coast of western Burma and is expected to make landfall between Wednesday and Friday (when Cyclone Nargis struck Burma in May 2008, it killed roughly 140,000 people).
In recent days, the government has come under fierce criticism from groups like Human Rights Watch for failing to move the camps to higher ground ahead of the storm. On Tuesday, a boat carrying more than 100 people seeking to escape the cyclone capsized, and 60 are still missing.
The Burmese government launched a campaign on Tuesday to begin moving tens of thousands of people to higher ground (about 70,000 displaced Rohingya and Kaman Muslims are vulnerable to the cyclone, according to Human Rights Watch), but it is still facing charges of not acting quickly enough:
"The Burmese government didn’t heed the repeated warnings by governments and humanitarian aid groups to relocate displaced Muslims ahead of Burma’s rainy season," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural, but man-made."
Thein Sein’s trip has attracted scrutiny from those who believe Western governments have acted rashly in embracing the reform-minded, quasi-civilian Burmese government without paying heed to ongoing human rights abuses in Burma. And the historic visit could grow even more controversial if Cyclone Mahasen hits the camps hard in the days that precede it.