YANGON, Myanmar — Myanmar's government warned Saturday that a new cyclone barreling north into the Bay of Bengal could threaten the country's western coast next week, raising fears the storm could swamp low-lying camps housing tens of thousands of embattled Rohingya Muslims who fled sectarian violence last year.
The brunt of the cyclone is currently heading toward Chittagong, Bangladesh. But its direction could still shift northeast and hit Myanmar's Rakhine state when it makes landfall at midweek, Myanmar's Meteorology Department and humanitarian aid officials monitoring the situation said.
The storm is predicted to hit late Wednesday or Thursday morning, and heavy rains and strong winds are expected to batter Rakhine state regardless. 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 United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Nearly 70,000 of those displaced are in low-lying areas along the coast that are highly susceptible to tidal surges and flooding and should be moved to higher ground, 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 Cyclone Nargis, an intense storm which swept away entire farming villages and killed more than 130,000 people.
Kelland Stevenson, country director for the international charity Save the Children, said aid agencies in Myanmar held an emergency meeting Saturday to check stocks of food and shelter and draw up contingency plans.
"The information we're getting now is that the storm is tracking away from Rakhine state, but it can change course at any minute," Stevenson said.
And either way, "there will be rain," he added. "It is likely to bring a significant amount of water."
Aid groups have issued warnings for weeks over the plight of the displaced amid fears that annual monsoon rains could wreak havoc in their camps and spark outbreaks of cholera or other diseases. But discussions over where to move the Rohingya have been complicated by widespread anti-Muslim sentiment, which still runs high nearly a year after unrest between the areas ethnic Rakhine Buddhists and the Rohingya erupted in June 2012.
The violence has largely segregated Rakhine state along religious lines, with prominent Buddhists – including monks – urging people to boycott Muslim businesses. Tens of thousands of Rohingya have been confined to cramped camps, their movement heavily restricted. Unable to go home, most cannot work or attend school.
The Rohingya have suffered discrimination for decades. Long viewed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, most are denied citizenship despite the fact that many have lived in Myanmar for generations.
On Saturday, state television broadcast cyclone warnings and President Thein Sein instructed regional authorities to be ready in case the storm hits. Myo Thant, a spokesman for Rakhine state, said officials there had issued warnings in the camps and are identifying evacuation locations in case the cyclone threat increases.
Chit Kyaw, the deputy director of Myanmar's Department of Meteorology, said that if the cyclone stays on its course toward Bangladesh, its swirling arms could sweep over Buthidaung and Maungdaw in northernmost Rakhine state.
Nigam, the senior U.N. official, said the United Nations is urging the government to move the most vulnerable displaced people in Rakhine to higher ground in case disaster strikes. He named three areas with high concentrations of displaced Muslims, all of them south of Buthidaung. They are the state capital, Sittwe, Pauktaw to the east, and Myebon further south.
Associated Press writers Aye Aye Win and Yadana Htun contributed to this report.