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.
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
‘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
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
THAILAND: Aiding double standards
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
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
THE ASIAN REGION: The power in waves’ wake
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
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.
WESTERN AID: True heroes are in the Majority World
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.
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’.
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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