The waves that woke the world
When the Asian tsunami struck on 26 December 2004 nearly every country on the globe sprung to assist. The people of the world led the way with personal donations totalling nearly $1.8 billion to help rebuild the homes and communities washed away in South and Southeast Asia. Their governments – unable to ignore the popular momentum that saw concerts and benefits spring up like mushrooms in the autumn rain – also responded generously. By early February, a total of more than $7 billion had been pledged in donations.
Not since the massive demonstrations to oppose the invasion of Iraq have people in the Minority World so visibly embraced those in the Majority World. Amid the devastation came the realization that people of different nations can work together to alleviate suffering. Could something wonderful spring from this disaster: the realization that co-operation and understanding between peoples can be forged?
The relief effort has shown that the world has a heart. We have yet to see whether the world also has a head: the capacity to develop a long-term strategy that will reflect the aspirations and needs of those who have been so tragically affected. World leadership and diplomacy will be crucial. And to date, the responses by governments have been mixed. While bilateral pledges have been generous, longer-term structural changes on trade and debt relief so far remain elusive. The recent G7 finance ministers’ meeting made promising noises (led by Britain’s Gordon Brown after a recent trip to Africa) and for the first time agreed in principle to the idea of 100-per-cent debt relief. But they postponed deciding exactly how this would work until the summer and there are notable differences between Britain, France and Germany and the more hawkish US and Australia which may yet mean that a devil emerges in the detail to frustrate debt campaigners’ hopes. Nevertheless, the world’s generosity has been encouraging. For too long, too many have done nothing in response to the human carnage that is taking place in countries like Sudan, Burma, Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo – or in the Indonesian province of Aceh before the tsunami struck. Indeed, the tsunami relief effort stands in sharp contrast to the 2003 Iranian earthquake just one year before, which killed more than 40,000 people but evoked little international reaction.
This selectivity means that some lives continue to be valued more than others. In the ensuing four pages, the NI presents the underbelly of the tsunami response. They follow the faultlines so often traced by this magazine between the Majority and the Minority World: the discrimination that has been unearthed with the bodies, the scramble to assist companies and industry rather than the people, and the potential neglect of environmental issues in the reconstruction process.
Photo: Dieter Telemans / Panos
INDONESIA: Military kill chance for peace in Aceh
Death and destruction in Aceh arrived well before the tsunami. Since the 1970s, a war has been raging in this western province of Indonesia between the Indonesian military (TNI) and the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM) that has left untold thousands dead. In May 2003, martial law was declared, effectively giving the military governance of the territory.
When the tsunami struck, it left 232,732 actually or presumed dead in Indonesia, overwhelmingly in Aceh and Sumatra – by far the world’s most devastated region. But it also left a chance for peace. The day after the tsunami, GAM declared a ceasefire. President Yudhoyono seized the opportunity and restarted peace talks with GAM, deadlocked since 2003.
Yet, despite the façade, the prospect of peace is tenuous. In the Aceh conflict the military have found a means to assert some political leverage in Jakarta as well as a great source of legal and illegal income. By February 2005, it had claimed responsibility for the death of over 200 GAM members since the ceasefire was declared. The additional fear is that the military will use Islamic extremist groups already present in Aceh to ruin the peace process by fomenting violence (the civilian militia in Timor-Leste were used in a similar way). This will help justify continued military operations and pressure President Yudhoyono to avoid an eventual truce. As Tapol, the Indonesia Human Rights Campaign, observes: ‘For any progress to be made towards peace, Aceh’s long history as a military fiefdom must end.’
SRI LANKA: Fishing for tourist dollars
A post-tsunami Government regulation prohibiting new constructions within a coastal buffer zone extending 100 to 200 metres landwards from the high water line has caused a tense situation for Sri Lanka’s fisher population.
‘It’s the first step towards removing them from the coast and handing it to the tourist industry,’ says Herman Kumara, founder and co-ordinator of National Fisheries Solidarity, an organization of over 7,000 fisherpeople around the country. Kumara says that in Dodanduwa, 105 kilometres south of Colombo, police stopped some members of his organization from rebuilding their partially damaged houses 75 metres inland. However, just 20 kilometres further south in the popular tourist spot of Unawatuna he has videoed a fully destroyed hotel being reconstructed without hindrance. ‘Why the difference?’ he asks.
Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike (the President’s brother) has pledged to provide ‘all possible relief and concessions to hoteliers,’ including interest-free loans. He has stated that partially damaged hotels will be allowed to rebuild even within the buffer zone. Most of the 64 tsunami-damaged hotels will recover their losses through insurance claims, says Upali de Silva, Director of Corporate Services of the Tourist Board. But thousands of fisherpeople have no insurance, no money in the bank and – with over 75 per cent of their fleet damaged or destroyed – no means of livelihood. The Government has made no move to help them get back to sea.
‘They don’t give a damn about us, because we are poor,’ says Dayaratne Fernando, a fisher in Angulana, just south of Colombo. ‘It’s the same with any government.’
INDIA: Caste rises from the graves
When the tsunami hit the beaches of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh it took the lives and property of Indians – nearly 15,000 people and $14 billion in damages – regardless of caste and social standing. But when the waves receded, this equality in calamity came to an abrupt halt. Reports were scanty at first but soon their frequency could not be ignored: India’s lower-caste Dalits (once called ‘untouchables’) were being discriminated against in the relief effort. Higher-caste fishers from affected village ports and other refugees are preventing food and water from being delivered to Dalit victims. The police have reportedly taken an active hand in the discrimination.
For some non-Dalits, even sharing the meagre shelter of a tin roof with Dalits in one of the many relief camps is too much. Dalit survivor Saravanan in Tamil Nadu testified: ‘We were inside a camp but kept in the very far corner. Whenever officials and trucks came to give food, we were left out because nobody allowed us to get near the trucks. Some men formed a ring around us and prevented us from moving ahead in the queue.’
Ironically, the Dalits (who now number some 220 million) did much of the post-tsunami cleanup – searching for and disposing of human and animal bodies – because upper castes consider such work unclean. Ashok Bharti, co-ordinator of the National Conference of Dalit Organizations is disgusted: ‘They want us to clear out their dead bodies and faeces, but when it comes to accepting relief they want to ensure that we are nowhere around simply because they cannot stomach the idea of sharing anything with us.’
AFRICA: The forgotten tsunami
Rolling across the Indian ocean at 805 kilometres an hour, the tsunami retained a good deal of its force when it hit the small fishing port of Hafun on the northeast African coast. While just 19 people were killed – tiny by Asian standards – the big wave left most townspeople with nowhere to live and traumatized by a sea on which they depend for their precarious livelihood. Overall, African tsunami deaths are estimated at about 200, with a total of 30,000 people affected. The Hafun Peninsula juts out of what used to be Somalia into the Indian Ocean. Hafun is now part of the semi-autonomous territory of Puntland, which is trying to shape itself into a coherent political entity. But poverty-stricken Puntland remains on the edge of global consciousness and in danger of being ignored in the rush to help other parts of the world.
THAILAND: Aiding double standards
Thailand has won high praise from Western governments for its compassionate concern for foreigners of various nations after tsunami waves hit five provinces in southern Thailand on 26 December 2004. But the Thai statistics – a total of 5,374 people confirmed dead – do not tell the whole story. Swedish, British and other tourists have been accounted for with care. Still missing from the picture months after the catastrophe were the many Burmese victims
Out of an estimated 127,000 Burmese migrant labourers working in the tsunami-affected zones, more than 1,000 are known to have died, with at least one Thai NGO claiming the death toll of Burmese is almost 2,500 – easily topping the death toll of other nationalities. Thai forensics expert Porntip Rojanasunan in Takua Pa district, Phang Nga province, has chided hotel managers who have failed to come forward and identify some of the decomposing corpses in the morgues that many believe to be Burmese. ‘These dead people are still in uniforms with hotel names and logos clearly on them. Some still with room keys tightly grasped in their hands.’
In addition, fearing deportation by the Thai authorities if they visit aid centres, many Burmese survivors have been afraid to line up for emergency aid and several thousand migrant families are in hiding. Many have been falsely blamed for looting hotels in Khao Lak. Thai NGO leader Ms Pranon Somwang commented: ‘We should not only care about Western tourists and our tourism industry but we should also remember the valuable role of Burmese labourers who built many of the hotels. The way we have treated them is a scandal.’
THE ENVIRONMENT: Mangroves save lives
One of the emerging lessons of the recent tsunami disaster is that mangroves and coral reefs are vital to prevent or at least soften the damage that can be caused by tsunamis and high tidal waves. Reports from Malaysia, India, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Sumatra reveal that coastal areas still covered by mangroves were relatively less affected by the tsunami. In Penang (Malaysia) – where fishers had planted 25,000 mangrove saplings in several areas so that the mangrove swamps were more abundant – there was less damage to homes and many fishers coming in with their catch were able to save their lives by clinging tight to the mangrove trees when the first waves came. The coral reef off the Surin Island chain on Thailand’s west coast forms a sturdy defence against the sea. Only a handful of people on the islands there are known to have perished.
Despite their life-saving potential, both mangrove and coral are victims of world over-development. In the past 30 years up to 50 per cent of the world’s mangrove has been lost. According to the environmental group Friends of the Earth: ‘Coastal zones and green belts such as mangroves, coral reefs and other natural barriers must be protected, regenerated and managed in a sustainable way’ to maintain them as safeguards against natural disasters.
Photo: Dieter Telemans / Panos
An unsustainable reconstruction
Early indications from Indonesia suggest that the tsunami reconstruction process will offer cover for poor environmental practices. The Indonesian Forum for the Environment (WALHI) is already warning that the demand for materials for rebuilding will put enormous added pressure on the country’s forests. Thus in early January 2005 the Indonesian Minister for Forestry increased the annual allowable cut for Indonesia’s forests by 400 per cent without any supporting ecological justification.
THE ASIAN REGION: The power in waves’ wake
The Government of India made a strong statement by refusing bilateral aid to deal with the tsunami crisis. India has for years worked to present itself as an important regional power with an eye to a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. Gradually weaning itself from foreign aid (it now allows bilateral aid from just six countries), the Government was not going to let the big wave alter priorities. Instead, it sent $24 million in aid to tsunami victims in other countries, including Thailand, which has a much healthier average per capita income. Its navy sent ships all over the region to offer help.
Of course no-one consulted India’s tsunami victims, themselves in need of aid. While India is the fourth biggest economy in the world, it has recently slipped three notches down the human development rankings. Hundreds of thousands of its people totter on the edge of starvation. Paradoxically, the Government accepts aid for major economic megaprojects. If the Government’s refusal to accept tsunami aid is to be credible it needs to do a better job than recent history would imply in helping the poorest of its victims. The Indian journalist Antara Dev Sen believes India’s new sense of self-confidence needs to be accompanied by ‘bringing transparency, widening access to information and allowing people themselves to be part of their relief and rehabilitation process.’
US-INDONESIA RELATIONS: Armed for more death
Politicians in both Indonesia and the US are now trying to ride the post-tragedy wave of sympathy to convince the US Congress to lift the arms ban imposed after the TNI (the Indonesian military), and the civilian militias that it protected, rampaged through Timor Leste (formerly East Timor) in 1999. In what was a de facto lifting of the ban, the need to get help to the victims in the aftermath of the disaster meant that US spare parts were provided for TNI helicopters.
But President Bush wants more. He considers Indonesia – the world’s largest Muslim country – a crucial ally in his global War on Terror and wants military ties normalized. His attempts have so far been frustrated by the US Congress, which has continued to be concerned about the TNI’s abysmal human rights records in other parts of Indonesia. The compound effect of the tsunami and President Bush’s second stronger mandate places fresh pressure on the US Congress to lift the ban, even though US military assistance could increase TNI violence against independence movements in the resource-rich Indonesian provinces of West Papua and Aceh.
Photo: Dermot Talow / Panos
WESTERN AID: True heroes are in the Majority World
On a 29 December flight to Bangkok, my partner and I decided to change our New Year travel plans to Southeast Asia and volunteer in the tsunami-affected areas along Thailand’s west coast. Our destination was a makeshift morgue in the temple of Wat Yan Yao. On arrival, the stench of a thousand dead bodies – the human reality of this tragedy – hit us in the face. The taste of disease in the air was not enough to distract us from the smaller body bags: the children – the saddest sight of all.
A man took us to a temporary office where volunteers were compiling a database of information and post-mortem photos of the victims. Almost immediately another man quickly briefed us and a minute later we were kitted out in protective coats, thick boots, masks and gloves. We joined a forensic team of 10 people made up of medical and dental experts and university students as well as Thai and foreign volunteers, given a number and asked to search for the corresponding body. We spent a gruesome hour checking each body for identifiable features including scars, tattoos and jewellery. A clothing label meant the difference between finding a person or just a number. I couldn’t help but look into the eyes of the disfigured bodies, but the eyes had gone, washed away by the weight of the water.
The process was factory-like. A seemingly endless conveyor belt of bodies was discovered, bagged and numbered, distributed to the inner temple, covered with dry ice, examined, DNA tested and finally placed in one of the large refrigerated ship containers to be identified by families and friends of victims. Thai police took on the role of directing traffic outside the compound – the constant stream of cargo containers, coffins, living people and dead bodies flowing in and out. Information tents housing translators were placed in visible locations while loudspeakers provided constant updates on the situation in both Thai and English.
At the end of our day’s work our gear was thrown out, we were sterilized and provided with much-needed refreshments – the Thais had thought of everything. We were told that our services, although appreciated, were no longer required since we didn’t speak Thai or have the specific skills that were in short supply.
I was initially surprised by the smooth and efficient co-ordination of the Thai teamwork, assuming somehow that the Thais were normally incapable of mounting such an operation on their own. Landing back in Australia, it was easy to see why I held such a ‘Westerncentric’ view. On every newspaper front page and in every lead news story, Australian governments down the years – with long track records of ignoring the plight of disaster-struck people the world over – were cast as having come to the rescue of poor people in ‘backward’ Third World states. The true heroes of the Thai tragedy were of course the local Thai people. They were driven by compassion, not the media. I felt privileged to have worked briefly with them.
Summing up tsunami aid
At the time of writing at the end of February 2005, the death toll from the Asian tsunami was still rising. The Red Cross estimates that 2.4 million people have been affected with more than 286,000 dead and 7,900 still missing.
This article is from
the April 2005 issue
of New Internationalist.
- Discover unique global perspectives
- Support cutting-edge independent media
- Magazine delivered to your door or inbox
- Digital archive of over 500 issues
- Fund in-depth, high quality journalism