Yangon: Myanmar`s government warned today that a cyclone now forming in the Bay of Bengal could slam into the country`s western coast next week, raising fears that storm surges or heavy rains could swamp low-lying camps housing tens of thousands of people who fled sectarian violence last year.
The brunt of the storm is currently barreling northwest toward Bangladesh. But its direction could shift northeast and hit Myanmar`s Rakhine state when it makes landfall at midweek, Myanmar`s Meteorology Department and aid officials monitoring the situation said.
Around 125,000 people -- mostly Muslims -- are living in cramped tents and makeshift shelters in Rakhine state after two outbreaks of sectarian violence there last year. Nearly 70,000 of those displaced are in low-lying areas along the coast that are highly vulnerable to storm surges and flooding, said Ashok Nigam, the United Nations` Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator.
"We`re very concerned," Nigam told The Associated Press. "We need to be prepared for the worst."
Myanmar`s southern delta was devastated in 2008 by Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 130,000 people.
Nigam said the United Nations is urging the government to move the most vulnerable displaced people in Rakhine state to higher ground in case disaster strikes.
But decisions over where to move displaced Muslims have been complicated by widespread anti-Muslim sentiment in the region, where tensions are still running high nearly a year after unrest between ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and Rohingya Muslims erupted.
The violence has largely segregated Rakhine state along religious lines, with prominent Buddhists, including monks, urging people to boycott Muslim businesses.
The Rohingya, whose movement has been restricted by authorities, have suffered discrimination for decades. They are widely viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh and denied citizenship as a result.