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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
Utter desolation: an Indian woman recovers the few possessions remaining in the ruins of her home in Tamil Nadu. Photo: Dieter Telemans / Panos

The waves that woke the world Asian Tsunami 26.12.04

INDONESIA: Military kill chance for peace in Aceh

Indonesian survivors looking for missing relatives in the Ulele district, Banda Aceh, come across a child’s doll amidst the devastation. Aceh, the closest landfall to the epicentre of the quake that triggered the tsunami, suffered the greatest loss of life. Photo: Martin Adler / Panos
Indonesian survivors looking for missing relatives in the Ulele district, Banda Aceh, come across a child's doll amidst the devastation. Aceh, the closest landfall to the epicentre of the quake that triggered the tsunami, suffered the greatest loss of life. Photo: Martin Adler / Panos

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

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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

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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

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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/Allpuntland.com

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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

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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

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

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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
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

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)

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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

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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
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

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Summing up tsunami aid
• On 7 February 2005 the United Nations reported that only $360 million of the $977 million of emergency bilateral (government) aid pledged for tsunami relief had actually been received.

• The earthquake that devastated Bam in Iran leaving 40,000 dead in December 2003 led to pledges of $1.1 billion in aid. But, according to Iran’s President Mohammed Khatami, a mere fraction of this amount ($17.5 million) has so far been delivered.

• The $7 billion so far pledged in tsunami aid is dwarfed by the $300 billion foreign debt of the five most affected countries. Together they must find $32 billion a year in annual debt payments. The US military budget is $400 billion.

• Only 5 of the 22 industrial countries – Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Netherlands and Luxemburg – have met their pledge (and the UN recommended minimum) of 0.7 per cent of gross national income for foreign assistance.

Le Monde Diplomatique/The Globe and Mail/Dochas/ www.globalissues.com

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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.

Sri Lanka
East Africa

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

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Romero remembered
25th anniversary of martyred Archbishop

The bearded assassin hunched down in the back of a dust-streaked red Volkswagen waiting for a clear shot. Inside San Salvador’s Hospital de la Divina Providencia, Oscar Romero, the diminutive Archbishop of El Salvador, was celebrating mass in the hospital’s chapel when the crack of a gunshot split the silence, knocking the cleric to the ground. Within minutes he was dead. It was Monday 24 March 1980.

News of the murder echoed around the world, sparking a full-scale civil war in the tiny Central American country. Before the conflict was halted by the 1992 Peace Accords, the carnage in El Salvador lasted 12 years and took a further 80,000 lives.

Central America was then the front-line in a Cold War campaign by the US to stop the ‘scourge of communism’ spreading up the spine of the Americas. In El Salvador, a leftist insurgency led by the FMLN (Farabundo Marti National Liberation) was contesting the landed oligarchy’s centuries-old hold on power. A small clique of wealthy families with strong links to US business interests ran the country. The US, first under Jimmy Carter and later Ronald Reagan, funnelled millions in military aid to El Salvador to defeat what it saw as a communist-led insurrection.

Salvador’s wealthy élites controlled the armed forces and the notorious ‘death squads’ – hired thugs who tortured, raped and murdered anyone who showed the slightest opposition to the system. Trade unionists, innocent peasants, community activists, their friends and families were killed by the thousands. Corpses were buried in shallow graves, dumped onto street corners and tossed into garbage dumps. By 1980 more than 3,000 people a month were being murdered. In March 1993 the UN Truth Commission on El Salvador concluded that the responsibility for the killings of thousands of Salvadorean civilians lay with senior military officers in an army which was strongly backed by Washington.

Archbishop Romero spoke out loudly against these injustices. He pleaded with US to stop military aid which he said was financing the military and the death squads. In his weekly radio sermons he told the oligarchy to halt the killing, using his position to challenge the ‘unjust economic structures’ which he saw as the root causes of the conflict.

And in a country where the peasants were seen as subhuman, he preached that the poor themselves must take power: ‘The world of the poor teaches us that liberation will arrive only when the poor are not simply on the receiving end of handouts from governments or from churches, but when they themselves are the masters and protagonists of their own struggle for liberation.’

This effrontery did not sit well with the oligarchy. Repeated death threats were issued against the Archbishop – to no avail. Shortly before his murder he said: ‘I do not believe in death without resurrection. If they kill me I will rise again in the people of El Salvador... if God accepts the sacrifice of my life, then may my blood be the seed of liberty and a sign that hope will soon become a reality.’

On the Sunday before his murder, in the old cathedral in the heart of the capital, Romero again denounced the military violence. In a rising voice, breaking with emotion, he called on ordinary soldiers to side with the people, to ignore the orders of their superiors.

‘ Brothers, you are from the same people, you kill your fellow peasant... No soldier is obliged to obey an order that is contrary to the will of God... In the name of God then, in the name of this suffering people I ask you, I command you in the name of God: stop the repression.’

The 1993 UN Commission concluded that ARENA party founder and US favourite Roberto D’Aubuisson ‘gave the order to assassinate the Archbishop and gave precise instructions to members of his security service, acting as a death squad, to organize and supervise the assassination’.1

A quarter-century after the murder of Oscar Romero, El Salvador is still emerging from the devastation. The FMLN holds the largest number of seats in the National Assembly. But the right-wing ARENA party under Tony Saca holds the presidency and the oligarchy remains firmly in control. The usual IMF/World Bank package has cut agricultural subsidies and slashed education and health spending, leading to further hardship for the campesino majority. The country’s foreign debt is nearly half its gross national product. A new Central American Free Trade Agreement, which will further unleash market forces, looms.

And what has the US Government learned from all of this? Not much, it appears. Recent news reports in The New Yorker and Newsweek claim that the Pentagon has proposed the ‘Salvador Option’ for Iraq – ‘training paramilitary forces loyal to the US to carry out intimidation and assassination campaigns against insurgents’.

Wayne Ellwood

1 UN Security Council, Annex, 'From Madness to Hope: the 12-year war in El Salvador: Report of the Commission on the Truth for El Salvador', S/25500, 1993, pp127-138.

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NI editorial comment

United Nations of America?

You could be forgiven for having missed the announcement by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in January that the next Executive Director of UNICEF is to be Ann Veneman, until recently US President George W Bush’s Agriculture Secretary. But it was a moment that should not pass without protest.

Technically the choice of a new UNICEF head is recommended by the UN Secretary-General to the organization’s Board. In practice it is openly acknowledged to be in the gift of the White House – and nobody even seems shamefaced about the fact.

So it is that an organization which exists to defend the rights and interests of all the world’s children has the next decade of its work dictated by the whims of domestic US politics. Had John Kerry won the US presidential election last November, he would doubtless have appointed someone considered to be of like political mind, as Bill Clinton appointed the previous Executive Director, Carol Bellamy, 10 years ago. As it is, the US Right has already been crowing about the appointment signalling a rollback of the Bellamy era and its championing of children’s and women’s rights.

At the press conference following the announcement of her appointment, Ann Veneman was asked about her position on reproductive rights – a red rag issue for the US Right. ‘I don’t believe that these issues are relevant to the mission of UNICEF,’ she replied.

The issue extends far beyond UNICEF itself and undermines the credibility of the whole UN system. Organizations in the UN system belong to the whole world and the top posts in them should be publicly and openly advertised to ensure that the best person for the job wins through. They should not be beholden to any one national government, let alone the world's one hyperpower.

The next major international public appointment to come up is that of World Bank President, since James Wolfensohn is stepping down later this year. The latest nightmare revelation that Iraq hawk and freemarket fundamentalist Paul Wolfowitz is the current favourite for the job only adds fuel to the fire. James Wolfensohn has already said openly that his successor will be appointed by the White House – as with the UNICEF post, the World Bank President has ‘by tradition’ been a US citizen.

Yes, well... ‘By tradition’ women in many parts of the world suffer genital mutilation. ‘By tradition’ some people are allocated to a lifetime role of cleaning other people’s toilets. ‘By tradition’ many countries in the world are ruled by brutal dictators. There are some traditions that are simply and utterly indefensible.

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