The Food Wars

The Food Wars

According to the gospel of corporate globalization, only large-scale farming methods can feed the world. Well, just as the real-estate mess burst one capitalist bubble, so The Food Wars shows that another has already exploded. Agribusiness and supermarkets control an unprecedented extent of the food chain, yet hunger and food prices have soared. Filipino activist-academic Walden Bello traces the causes of today’s food crisis back to the World Bank’s strategy of structural adjustment, which was applied to around 90 countries in the South. Small farmers and local producers were marginalized as export-orientated food production was promoted and foreign corporations privileged. The result: loss of food security in many parts of the South.

Bello’s is a convincing critique. The alternatives he proposes centre on the notion of food sovereignty – prioritizing local food production, harnessing new technology and meshing it with traditional knowledge. Exactly how this can be elevated from a local and regional alternative to a global one is less clear. Bello seems to assume that all countries can and should be self-sufficient in food production, as if they all had an equal capacity and land fertility. Nonetheless, The Food Wars is a valuable contribution to the urgent debate on how to thwart further Tesco-ization of the world and land-grabbing from small producers. If we don’t move in this direction, food riots – such as those that erupted in Egypt and Haiti – will surely escalate into food wars. 


Facing history in Cambodia

Pol Pot and his victorious Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia in April 1975 – Year Zero. In a few short days the Khmer Rouge turned back the clock, driving people out of the cities, transforming Cambodia into a vast network of slave labour communes and mass graves. The goal was to return the country to a peasant economy. There would be no class divisions, no money, no books, no schools and no hospitals. The city was drained of its inhabitants. Those who refused were shot. In four short years nearly two million people died from murder, torture, disease and starvation.

Today, Cambodia is a popular tourist destination. Phnom Penh is thriving. Busy cafés, trendy restaurants and noisy nightclubs dot the streets. But the deep trauma of the ‘killing fields’ has yet to be addressed. An agreement between the Cambodian Government and the UN to bring surviving Khmer Rouge leaders to justice was only signed in 2003.

Two years prior to that, the Cambodian National Assembly passed a law to create a court to try serious crimes committed during the Khmer Rouge’s 1975-79 regime. Officially the court is called the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia for the Prosecution of Crimes Committed during the Period of Democratic Kampuchea (Extraordinary Chambers or ECCC). The resulting joint UN-Cambodia Tribunal (known as the Khmer Rouge Tribunal) was launched in 2006. The first trial began in February this year.

Denial of justice

Beneath the surface calm of Khmer smiles, the absence of healing and the denial of justice have cast long shadows over this country and its people. Old wounds and scars, both mental and physical, have long festered, exacerbated by the lack of closure.

Despite the passage of time, Cambodians have never stopped clamouring for justice. Youk Chhang, director of the Documentation Centre of Cambodia, which was set up to investigate the crimes of the Khmer Rouge, says the Tribunal is important because, ‘we still suffer from the legacy of Pol Pot. We have so many terrible experiences bottled up inside us… The only way to free us is to have a complete accounting – to bring real justice.’

The Khmer Rouge Tribunal (KRT), based in Phnom Penh, is a ‘hybrid’ system. It brings international jurists together with local lawyers and judges, within a legal framework that blends Cambodian rules of evidence with international law.

But the KRT has sparked deep controversy and drawn enormous flak in its painfully slow attempts to deliver justice for crimes committed by the Khmer Rouge 30 years ago. Indeed, the swirl of negative comment, coupled with serious funding problems, has fuelled speculation that the KRT could collapse long before any trials are completed. Allegations of corruption and political interference from Prime Minister Hun Sen have dogged the KRT from the beginning.

But there are countless reasons why this legal process should continue, despite its flaws. Support for the Tribunal is critical, both to honour the memory of the dead and to provide justice and accountability for survivors.

All attempts to advance international justice in the last decade (including international tribunals on human rights crimes in Bosnia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone) have been dogged by flaws and political problems. But the Cambodian Tribunal – the tribunal that pundits said would never happen – has been mired in intense political controversy for years.1

Perfect impunity

Thanks to the ‘Cold War’ and the ‘evil empire’ politics of US President Ronald Reagan, Pol Pot and his cohorts enjoyed almost perfect impunity from prosecution during the 1980s and 1990s. This despite passionate pleas from exiled Cambodians and the Phnom Penh Government to remove the Khmer Rouge from the country’s seat at the UN – and to put the regime on trial for mass murder.

Contrary to some claims, Western governments have not imposed the Tribunal – it is the belated fulfilment of Cambodian demands for justice that date back to the early 1980s, shortly after the country was liberated. But it was only after the end of the ‘Cold War’ and the fall of the Soviet Union that Western countries found it politically convenient to come on board. Hence, history itself is the clearest rebuttal to the charge that the trial is a game scripted by some Western governments.2

Cambodians have been intimately involved in setting up the Tribunal, including hammering out its legal framework and supporting its ‘hybrid’ approach. The Phnom Penh legal taskforce insisted that UN legal advisors should treat them as respected partners rather than students receiving legal tuition from world experts. Former UN chief of legal affairs Hans Correll, who led negotiations for the establishment of the KRT, complained that the Cambodians were ‘far more difficult to deal with than the Sierra Leone officials’ and far less subservient to the dictates of legal experts in the UN’s New York headquarters.

The Cambodia Tribunal has been designed to target the surviving senior leaders from the inner core of the Khmer Rouge – ‘those most responsible for crimes against humanity’.

Five leaders have been arrested and indicted on the charge of ‘crimes against humanity’. They will be held accountable for the deaths of 1.7 million people, horrendous torture, policy-induced starvation and disease. They will also stand accused of the systematic destruction of family life and subjugation of the population to a nightmare existence in slave labour camps. Other leaders died before they could be arrested and brought to trial. Pol Pot died in 1998.

The first to come to trial will be Kaing Kek Ieu, nicknamed Duch, the former director of ‘Security Office 21’ – the infamous Tuol Sleng prison where more than 16,000 people were tortured and killed. There were only seven survivors. In May 1976 the Khmer Rouge set up S-21 in a former high school in Phnom Penh. The purpose: to interrogate and exterminate anyone suspected of opposing the regime.

Grisly reminders

Cambodia is so pockmarked by hundreds of mass graves (thoroughly documented by researchers from the Genocide Documentation Centre in Phnom Penh) that in every province you can stumble on grisly reminders of bloody purges and burial sites of the victims. During Pol Pot’s brief rule more than 22 per cent of the population was killed. Regardless of the twisted ideology that rationalized these murders, international law defines such acts as ‘crimes against humanity’. Genocide and mass murder – whether in Chile, Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia or Cambodia – should not be quietly forgotten and dismissed.

The KRT, as with all the international tribunals, has its shortcomings. Some argue that its mandate is not broad enough and the other responsible parties will escape justice. President Richard Nixon’s Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, was the main author of the barbaric US bombing campaign against Cambodia, which paved the way for the Khmer Rouge victory. Kissinger, critics argue, would also be on trial if international justice weren’t so tilted in favour of the West.

A valid point, but sadly immunity from prosecution still exists for Western leaders. Think of the NATO bombing of civilians in Belgrade during the Kosovo War, or of Israel's role in the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut, or more recently, in Gaza. The US has deliberately exempted itself from the International Criminal Court. But current flaws in international justice should not be used to exonerate the Idi Amins, the Pinochets and the Pol Pots of this world.

Criminal culpability

If Cambodians had insisted on extending criminal culpability beyond Pol Pot’s 1975-79 regime to cover earlier events – for example, US bombing in the early 1970s – this trial would never have got off the ground. Or it would have been marginalized as another ‘People’s Tribunal’ without official judicial status or international recognition.3

The whole truth will not emerge in the KRT. But the research and documentation presented to the court will provide an excellent basis for the real history of the period to emerge. It’s critical that the next generation learn what really happened under the Pol Pot regime and why. Kissinger will not be indicted in the courtroom. But the defence counsel will almost certainly mention his name and allude to his crimes during the trial.

Far from ‘rewriting history’2 the Cambodian Tribunal will be making history. The Documentation Centre of Cambodia has turned over to the prosecution more than 58,000 documents, including vital cables and communications sent by top leaders.

The final judgement on the Pol Pot era will become the authoritative base of history books and the teaching of future generations. Several notable Cambodia scholars are employed by the judicial investigation team as part of UN support for the trial.

More than 10,000 villagers have been bussed to Phnom Penh to see the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, to visit the mass graves at Choueng Ek, to tour the Tribunal complex and to meet prosecutors and judges. Local newspapers, radio and TV have already begun extensive pre-trial coverage.

Cambodian human rights organizations and other NGOs in the country are hopeful that the Tribunal can set new standards for judges and the rights of the defence in domestic courts and provide a new foundation for a fairer and more competent legal system.

Many governments, including China, the US, Singapore, Thailand and Britain, conspired to block and delay this Tribunal during the Byzantine politics of the ‘Cold War’ era. Since then new obstructions and countless attacks on the legal framework have come from many quarters including the George Soros-funded ‘Cambodia Justice Initiative’. China still opposes the KRT and delayed its formation by exerting diplomatic pressure on the Cambodian Government.

But it is Cambodians – not Western lawyers, Western governments or the Chinese state – who have the most to gain from the Tribunal and who would lose the most should the tribunal falter or fail.

The KRT will bring some satisfaction to Cambodians that justice – however belatedly – has finally caught up with at least some of the chief perpetrators and policymakers of the Pol Pot regime.

The alternative – to abandon the Tribunal or to allow it to collapse without sufficient funding – would be a crushing blow to Cambodian expectations of accountability and justice. And that would be one more tragedy for a nation that has never fully recovered from the collective traumas inflicted by decades of bombing, genocide and civil war.

Victims speak out

Cambodia’s KRT is the first UN-mandated Tribunal to allow victims to participate directly – with the right to access court documents and the right to be heard as a third party. UN assistance to the KRT includes a ‘Victims Unit’ to provide technical and legal assistance.

However, the initiative is not without problems. More than 1,800 people want to testify, and how they can be accommodated without swamping the court and delaying the trials is a serious question.

Nonetheless, the participation of victims has given Cambodians an additional sense of ownership over the process. It also helps confirm the legitimacy of court proceedings taking place decades after the crimes took place.

International jurists are closely monitoring the Tribunal to determine its impact on international human rights trials elsewhere.

Tom Fawthrop is a journalist and independent TV documentary producer with a longstanding interest in Cambodia.

  1. For a description of the obstacles to setting up the KRT see Chapter 1, ‘One More River to Cross’ in Getting away with Genocide? Tom Fawthrop & Dr Helen Jarvis, Pluto Books.
  2. See ‘Was the Khmer Rouge Misunderstood?’ New Internationalist 415, September 2008.
  3. In 1979 a ‘People’s Revolutionary Tribunal’ in Phnom Penh found Pol Pot and Ieng Sary guilty of genocide. The world dismissed the tribunal as ‘mere propaganda’.

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.

Utter desolation: an Indian woman recovers the few possessions remaining in the ruins of her home in Tamil Nadu.

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.’

Fabio Scarpello

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.’

Lasanda Kurukulasuriya

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.’

Dawn/Inter-Press Service

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.

BBC News/

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.’

Tom Fawthrop

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.

Martin Khor/Third World Network

While India's people clamoured for food following the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, the Indian Government sent more than $24 million in aid to other countries in order to cement its power in the region.

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.

Cam Walker

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.’

Open Democracy/The National Business Review (New Zealand/Aotearoa)

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.

Fabio Scarpello

Come on back! Foreign military assistance denied to Indonesia after the bloodbath in Timor-Leste resumed after the tsunami to provide humanitarian aid to Aceh. And, in the case of the US military assistance, it looks like staying.

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.

Mark Notaras

Summing up tsunami aid

Le Monde Diplomatique/The Globe and Mail/Dochas/

Death toll1

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.

  • International Federation of Red Cross. The figures for Indonesia and India include those missing, presumed dead.
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