Cyclone Mocha in Myanmar: Mayhem and Maneuvering

Recent Features

Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

Cyclone Mocha in Myanmar: Mayhem and Maneuvering

Humanitarian efforts in the wake of Cyclone Mocha have become yet another front in the country’s expanding conflict.

Cyclone Mocha in Myanmar: Mayhem and Maneuvering

In this photo provided by Myanmar Military True News Information Team on Monday, May 15, 2023, soldiers and polices unload relief items for victims at airport after Cyclone Mocha in Sittwe township, Rakhine State, Myanmar.

Credit: Military True News Information Team via AP

On the afternoon of May 14, Extremely Severe Cyclone Mocha made landfall near Sittwe, the capital of Myanmar’s strife-afflicted Rakhine State. With windspeeds over 200 km/h, Mocha was one of the strongest cyclones ever to form in the north Indian Ocean.

The State Administration Council (SAC) junta declared much of Rakhine State and four townships in neighboring Chin State as natural disaster areas, appointing military officers to each township to oversee the local response. It announced on May 21 that at least 145 people have died and more than 270,000 buildings were destroyed and has yet to update the figures.

The Arakan Army (AA), which capitalized on the coup and now controls over two-thirds of Rakhine, formed a disaster recovery and resettlement committee and is coordinating with the Rakhine diaspora and civil society organizations (CSOs). Meanwhile, the parallel National Unity Government (NUG) says at least 450 people perished, many from the long-persecuted Rohingya community.

The fear is that Cyclone Mocha will take an acute and long-term toll on various conflict-affected communities, reinforced by the long shadow of Cyclone Nargis that battered Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta in May 2008. In Mocha’s wake, the SAC is accused of hindering aid agencies in Rakhine by maintaining stifling travel authorization restrictions. There is also little public confidence in its response, with residents reporting delays even after two weeks and at least one group briefly detained while delivering aid.

Netizens and the critics of the military regime are also highlighting the responses by the AA alongside the NUG and anti-SAC militias, who despite the praise and grassroots-level popularity lack the logistics and non-manpower resources to mount a substantive recovery effort. Both the AA and the NUG have appealed to foreign donors and aid agencies to work directly with them but as most supplies will have to come from Yangon, the SAC will have the final say regardless.


Cyclone Mocha ripped through exceptionally vulnerable areas, with nearly 5.4 million people in its path. Of these, around 3 million had pressing humanitarian needs even before the storm. This includes roughly 600,000 Rohingyas of whom around 150,000 are internally displaced persons (IDPs) confined to enclosed camps, and 1 million people in Chin, Magway, and Sagaing regions who have been displaced by the post-coup civil war.

Rakhine also has around 70,000 people displaced by earlier fighting between the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) and the AA. In addition, conflict-affected smaller communities such as the Kaman and Mro live in exposed camps scattered throughout the state.

Post-cyclone pictures from Sittwe showed a denuded landscape with as much as 90 percent of buildings in the city of 150,000 reported destroyed or damaged. Photos from other parts of Rakhine showed obliterated villages and IDP camps. Local media also reported thousands of dead farm animals strewn about and contaminated water sources affecting at least 100,000 people.

Reports further inland stated thousands of destroyed homes, buildings, and IDP camps, as well as landslides and flash flooding. Conflict-affected communities now find themselves exposed to the elements just as the monsoon season is beginning, with the risks of waterborne diseases, snake bites, and washed off landmines dramatically heightened. Meanwhile, People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias opposing the SAC regime are reported to have destroyed camps and ruined rations.

Flooding will severely restrict this year’s rice crop in Rakhine, whose sown acreage had declined by a third since 2017. Across many parts of Sagaing, Magway, and Mandalay regions, there have been reports of extensive damage to tens of thousands of acres of summer paddy and other crops that were due to be harvested in late May, while seed stocks for the critical monsoon planting were ruined. This comes on top of lower productivity due to currency volatility, spiraling conflict, and the broader impacts of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The storm also damaged fleets of small fishing boats that form the food and economic backbone of coastal communities.

Such losses will only exacerbate food insecurities across Myanmar, particularly in contested areas, and put additional strain on the sputtering economy. Communities across the country are donating what they can to relief and recovery efforts but lack of trust in the SAC, fatigue after continuously donating to various causes since the COVID-19 pandemic began, a weakened currency, and soaring commodity prices mean that there is a lot less to go around. The Institute for Strategy and Policy Myanmar (ISP Myanmar) has written that Cyclone Mocha could impact the overall course of the conflict, potentially creating new tensions over resource competition and fueling mass migrations.


Cyclone Mocha provided a temporary distraction from the country’s grueling civil war. News and propaganda platforms momentarily shifted focus from the daily miseries of conflict toward the storm. That said, the cyclone quickly became an opportunity for the different camps in Myanmar’s civil war and governance struggle to score political points, with the recovery effort militarized and fragmented along conflict lines. None of the armed camps have signaled any intention to set aside their antagonism even temporarily to collaborate on the humanitarian response. All this looks set to further hamper the overall recovery effort and widen the country’s bitter divides.

Allegations and political maneuvering were already in full swing even before the cyclone made landfall. The SAC, the AA, and resistance groups deployed resources to showcase their responses while affiliated or sympathetic platforms portrayed parallel realities amplifying these displays and drowning out competing information. Coverage often featured photos of SAC or AA soldiers with prominent insignia carrying the elderly, clearing debris, or affiliated medical teams providing care, with Rohingyas as inclusivity props.

Before Mocha struck, regime-controlled state media and pro-military Telegram channels covered military-led evacuations and preparation efforts, reporting that the junta had evacuated over 600,000 people in Rakhine and tens of thousands in other areas. A few platforms claimed that Tatmadaw columns actively raiding in Sagaing were actually going about “warning” local communities.

These outlets were later plastered with coverage of SAC leader Min Aung Hlaing and other junta members’ visits to Rakhine alongside military-led responses in disaster areas, with ubiquitous scenes of soldiers unloading supplies from military ships and airplanes and no mention of the AA’s efforts. Junta supporters prematurely congratulated themselves, interpreting Western pledges of humanitarian assistance as a tacit acknowledgment of the regime.

Meanwhile, resistance-leaning news platforms and pages focused exclusively on efforts by the AA and PDF groups. The AA reported evacuating over 100,000 people in Rakhine. The platforms criticized Min Aung Hlaing for traveling to other parts of the country before the cyclone and ridiculed junta functionaries for holding Buddhist rituals on top of normal disaster preparation efforts. After the storm, the pages carried posts of AA personnel responding to the disaster areas and criticisms of the SAC’s response, alongside allegations of the regime obstructing aid and hampering CSOs. While the junta shows villagers receiving sacks of rice and subsidized sales of food supplies on television, some channels said starving villages refused food aid from the SAC as the allotted amounts were supposedly miniscule, and of rampant price gouging among local communities.

By May 20, the SAC reported receiving around MMK 22 billion (around $7.65 million) in “public donations” but is yet to publish a concrete number on state financing. It quoted an initial damage assessment of around $165 million but this is unrealistically low given the widespread destruction reported. Regime-controlled papers show the deployment of medical, electrician, and telecom teams to Rakhine and the arrival of reconstruction supplies, but it is unclear whether they have ventured to AA-controlled areas. And with vast swathes of Chin and Sagaing under resistance control, it is unlikely the junta can or would do anything there.

The NUG meanwhile mobilized an initial $1 million fund for the recovery effort and additionally pledged ten percent of its overall tax revenues, amounting to a further $100,000 contribution based on earlier reported figures. Early this month, the NUG’s acting president visited an undisclosed “liberated area” affected by Cyclone Mocha and pledged continued support.

Its Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs and Disaster Management announced an MMK 85 million (around $30,000) aid package for disaster areas as well as Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. Ethnic armed organizations and CSOs have donated around MMK 900 million (around $310,000) to the AA as of May 31, including MMK 100 million (around $35,000) from the NUG.

Moving Forward

More than two weeks after the cyclone struck, relief efforts are still facing many hurdles. Last week, the SAC junta revoked the travel authorizations of United Nations staff and foreign aid workers, blocking their ability to distribute food, shelter, and medicines in the worst-affected regions of Rakhine State. Even in the immediate aftermath of the storm, at a time when a day’s delay was a matter of life or death for many communities, the SAC erected a host of odious bureaucratic restrictions, and the AA accused it of deliberately blocking aid. Many local communities across affected states and regions have said they have yet to receive substantive aid from any faction despite the competing pledges. The United Nations Development Programme has requested unhindered access and for the “depoliticization and demilitarization” of aid.

Even if the SAC is approaching relief through a zero-sum game approach or purely to score political points, its current approach makes no sense whatsoever. It highlights how out of touch the regime is, that its only approach to solving problems is through brute force, and that its own activities will undermine whatever it aims to achieve.

The SAC and AA recently sat down in a Chinese-brokered meeting that reportedly fell apart and tensions arising from post-cyclone recovery could hasten a collapse of the tenuous second ceasefire that currently holds between them in Rakhine. On June 8, NGOs shared letters from the SAC-controlled state government suspending their travel authorizations beyond Sittwe, eliciting angry backlashes from the AA and the local Rakhine community. While the letters were ostensibly dated before the Mongla talks, locals believe that they were in retaliation to the episode. There is broad fear among locals as well as hope from resistance supporters that the ceasefire’s collapse is only a matter of time.

In other states and regions, conflict resumed very shortly after the storm dissipated. Pro-military channels speak of military planes delivering relief supplies yet daily air strikes have resumed on resistance strongholds forcing thousands to flee in the weeks following the cyclone and discrediting the junta’s efforts to brandish its humanitarian credentials. Meanwhile, resistance groups in Sagaing just concluded a groundbreaking forum to better unite “against all forms of authoritarianism.”

The AA looks set to score a huge propaganda victory, even if its recovery efforts are severely limited by the junta. The NUG as well could make some political gains despite the very modest resources it has mobilized. As for the SAC, it stands to cede further ground regardless of what it does. Ironically, the cyclone shows the regime’s relatively stronger position against the multi-strand resistance movements but its obstructionist approach will only underscore its opponents’ case that the junta is unfit to govern.

Cyclone Mocha should have been a wake-up call for all sides, especially the SAC regime, to reevaluate their positions and seek a political settlement to the senseless civil war. Myanmar is a natural disaster-prone country extremely vulnerable to climate change and it is a question of when, not if, the next major calamity strikes. Yet the past few weeks have only shown how intractable the country’s civil war is, and the urgent need for regional countries and international partners to redouble their efforts to find a viable solution.