SITTWE, Myanmar — An overcrowded boat capsized while trying to escape a cyclone bearing down on Myanmar, tossing dozens of members of the displaced Rohingya minority group into the sea. Eight bodies were found and more than 50 people were missing and feared dead, the United Nations said.
More than 100 people were aboard the boat when it set sail late Monday night, but only 42 had been rescued, James Munn, an official with the U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Tuesday. They are among about 140,000 people – mostly Rohingya Muslims – who fled their homes and sought refuge in camps following two outbreaks of Buddhist-Rohingya violence last year.
The U.N. said tens of thousands of Rohingya, living in flimsy tents and makeshift shelters in Myanmar's Rakhine state, were endangered by the storm.
Ashok Nigam, the United Nations' humanitarian coordinator in Myanmar, said nearly 70,000 of the 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. It was raining at the camps on Tuesday.
Cyclone Mahasen is expected to make landfall early Friday. The storm was heading toward Chittagong, Bangladesh, but could shift east and deliver a more direct hit on Rakhine state, according to Myanmar's Meteorology Department. Heavy rains and strong winds are expected to batter Rakhine.
Myanmar state television reported Monday that 5,158 people had been relocated from low-lying camps in the Rakhine state capital Sittwe to safer shelters, and an unspecified number from other areas. The U.N. said the government's plan had been to evacuate 38,000 internally displaced people on Monday and Tuesday.
International rights and aid agencies urged that the evacuations be stepped up.
"If the government fails to evacuate those at risk, any disaster that results will not be natural, but man-made," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
Many people in Buddhist-majority Myanmar see Rohingya Muslims as illegal migrants from Bangladesh, even though many have lived in Myanmar for generations, and they are denied citizenship as a result.
Myanmar's southern delta was devastated in 2008 by Cyclone Nargis, which swept away entire farming villages and killed more than 130,000 people.