Indian Ocean disaster: Global capitalism to blame for scale of tragedy

Everyone in the region and tens of millions elsewhere in the world with access to some form of media is shocked and bewildered by what happened on the shores of the Indian Ocean on the morning of 26 December.

Around the globe, a huge amount of sympathy is being expressed and a desire to do something to help. People feel that something must be done, not only to assist the grieving and the survivors but also to prevent any repetition of such widespread death and destruction. They are asking: "Why were casualties so large? Why no warning systems? What is the future for the millions affected? How can their lives not only be rebuilt but dramatically improved?" In a special programme on BBC television on 29 December, John Simpson described the area of the world as one where the wealthy (and we would say, not so wealthy) come to holiday and the poor cling to a precarious existence at the best of times.

As the Financial Times wrote on December 29: "The number of foreign holidaymakers caught in the tsunami caused by Sunday’s earthquake ensured the rest of the world paid attention to a disaster that, according to the United Nations, was unique in encompassing such a large area and so many countries." This is in stark contrast to the scant coverage given to the Iranian earthquake disaster of exactly one year ago – December 26, 2003 in Bam, when tens of thousands also met cruel and sudden deaths.

News and images of the mass destruction of 26 December, 2004 have already been numerous and overwhelming. But even with its extensive coverage in the last few days, the world’s media has been able to transmit only a fraction of the human tragedy associated with the greatest ‘natural disaster’ in recorded history. Over 100,000 of some of the world’s most poverty-stricken people have been battered and swept to gruesome deaths. The ‘tsunamis’ set off by an earthquake reaching 9 points on the Richter scale, travelled at the speed of an aeroplane across the mighty Indian Ocean. It wreaked havoc on the coasts of at least ten countries in Asia and even Africa.

Amongst the dead, missing, injured and bereaved are thousands of tourists. They had come in their thousands from Europe and elsewhere to spend time in a ‘heaven on earth’ – the apparently peaceful ‘paradises’ of Thailand, the Maldives, Sri Lanka. On the morning of 26 December, they were hurled in a matter of minutes into a veritable hell on earth. Neither Dante in his description of the ‘Inferno’ nor the maker of the film ‘The Day after Tomorrow’ could have invented more shocking scenes of horror.

Toll escalating

The death toll for the region doubled in one day – Tuesday 28 December – to over 60,000. By 29 December it was over 100,000. Up to half of the people reported dead are in Aceh on the island of Sumatra (see separate interview) and 22,000 in Sri Lanka. Thousands are being found dead in Thailand, local people and also more than 800 tourists on the idyllic beach of Khao Lak featured in the famous Di Caprio film. An alert by Thailand’s meteorological department, who knew what was happening an hour before the tsunami struck, was withheld for fear of wrecking the tourist trade. (Not much will be left of that trade at present.)

India sees over 7,000 dead on the mainland, especially Tamil Nadu. (See separate report to follow) and as many as 8,000 could have been killed when the tsunami hit the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands. There are known to be hundreds of victims in East Africa and more in Malaysia, Burma, Bangladesh and the Maldives.

Doubtless the total figure killed directly by the waves will continue to rise as the ‘body management’ operation that one TV reporter referred to, reaches its peak in the next few days. Poor fishermen, their families, tourists have often been buried unidentified, hundreds without coffins and in mass graves to avoid disease-engendering putrefaction in the tropical sun. The seas are daily bringing hundreds more bodies to the beaches; many will never be yielded up from either the ocean or the mud that has swamped them.

Up to half of all victims are children – unable to swim, too weak to cling on to a tree or a parent. Parents weep and search for children; children weep and search for parents

The devastation all occurred in the space of a few hours. Repairing it, however, will be the work of decades. On top of this, it is now clear, there will be a wave of criticism aimed at political ‘leaders’ for totally inadequate responses to the disaster. Among them will be George Bush, in spite of his call for a core group of countries to coordinate relief and for an early warning system to be put in place in the Indian Ocean.

‘Natural Disaster’

Amongst the nightmare accounts of death and survival, there shine out example after example of human heroism and selflessness. Not least were the actions of local people in attempting to save complete strangers from far off lands. The human solidarity displayed has been moving and inspiring – in marked contrast to the dog eat dog brutality of the society we know under capitalism.

Among reports from Aceh (Indonesia) and Sri Lanka there are also instances of decades-long enemies in wars of national liberation, transcending their hostility and cooperating in rescue and survival operations. Hopes are nurtured that a ‘natural’ disaster can bring the peace that capitalist governments have been unable to secure for decades, but these will only be realised if working people are able to act together to secure their future.

The death toll of those killed by the immediate impact of the killer waves is still being assessed but according to United Nations and other aid agencies, it is expected to be far exceeded by that of victims of ensuing diseases like typhoid, cholera, hepatitis and malaria who will suffer slow and painful deaths. A very large proportion of these will also be babes and young children. In the regions worst affected there is a ‘lost generation’ as bereaved parents in Tamil Nadu wail in their grief.

Of course, people around the world are horrified and deeply affected by the scenes of death and destruction. They are already responding generously to appeals for donations to supply medicines, clean water, food, clothes and shelter. Understandably, the question ‘Why does this have to happen?’ is on the lips of millions. Many will talk of the wrath of God or of the ocean itself. But was the incalculable scale of this human suffering inevitable? If not, who is to blame?

Social explosion to follow?

Even for European countries like Sweden, with more than 2,000 citizens feared dead, but especially for the countries worst hit, this disaster is 9/11 writ large. Nothing will be the same in the countries affected. Numerous questions will have to be answered especially whether the scale of human sacrifice could have been avoided (see separate article).

Chandrika Kumaratunge, president of Sri Lanka, explained to journalists the day the wave struck, "We were not well equipped to deal with a disaster of this magnitude". Now she admits that the government is also unprepared to cope with the massive relief operation under way. Countries in which earthquakes and tidal waves are always a risk should all be equipped with early warning systems. The cost is infinitesimal compared with the losses and costs of rescue and relief on the gigantic scale of that now needed. Even George Bush, trying to retain some credibility in the region has accepted the need for an early warning system in the Indian Ocean. Like Tony Blair, however, he remains on holiday. In London, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, simply issues platitudes about being "At the mercy of natural forces" and fails to set up even an efficient system for relatives to get information on British tourists in the disaster area.

The capitalists and imperialists who try to impose neo-liberal, anti-working class policies on the working and poor people of these countries should put some fraction of their ill-gotten gains into protecting them. As it is, the US spends just 0.14% of its national income on foreign aid – less as a proportion than any other modernised nation.

The island of Diego Garcia, apparently as vulnerable as many other islands in the Indian Ocean escaped without any casualties. It just happens to have a US Air Force base on it, which is directly linked to the US Pacific Command in Hawaii which knew about the earthquake hours before the tsunamis hit the islands shores. Even half an hour’s warning gives enough time to get away from the wave. As an expert on hazard research wrote in the Independent: "Forethought and practical action can make the difference between a natural event and a natural disaster".

In Sri Lanka, local people could read the signs of the approaching wave from the behaviour of the birds and ran to safety. Diving off the coast of Thailand, a group leader read the imminent danger from the sudden panic expressed by fish in "going crazy". As the article by Jon Dale explains, in the Pacific there is an elaborate early warning system. But the greatest power on earth is at one side of the Pacific and has major bases in the area while just numerous poverty-stricken countries are on the rim of the Indian Ocean.

Stephen King, of HSBC wrote: "Those that appear to have suffered the greatest loss of life are those that are also the poorest. Gross national income per capita in Sri Lanka is just $930 per annum. In Indonesia it’s $810 per annum. And in India it’s just $530 per annum. By contrast, the average American can expect to live off $37,610 per annum". (Independent, 29 December).

What conclusion do the big imperialist countries and the world’s stock markets draw about the catastrophe? According to the press of 30 December they hardly batted an eyelid, the countries are so poor. (The GDP of Sri Lanka is only equivalent to 5% of the US military budget.)

Economic tsunami

What conclusion do Marxists draw? The economic Tsunami of global capitalism and imperialism is a million times more murderous than any natural phenomenon. The invisible hand of the market is not only behind the entirely avoidable scale of the massacre wrought by the world’s worst earthquake disaster and many others less publicised.

It is a ‘system’ that bestrides the globe, looking for cheap labour and exploitable markets, impoverishing millions more people daily in the process. It is a system that screws billions of dollars of profit from the unpaid labour of the working class, leaves millions on the scrap heap without work and demands more than the whole budget income of some nations in interest payments on their debts. It is a ‘system’ of anarchic decisions which affect the lives of billions of poor people.


Its representatives weep for the slaughtered innocents of Sri Lanka and Tamil Nadu today. They call for emergency action to save lives. But, as a letter in the Independent reminds its readers on 29 December: "According to the World Health Organisation, nearly 30,000 children under five die every day with preventable and treatable diseases being responsible for 70 per cent (21,000) of these deaths". This daily death toll is preventable by the provision of the most basic of necessities that capitalism withholds.

The US government spends more than the rest of the world put together on arms. Its budget for financing the US army’s occupation in Iraq even next year is estimated by the Christian Science Monitor (published in Newsweek) as $212 – 232 billion – more than $4bn a week!

Before the invasion of Iraq, hundreds of thousands of children died because of the sanctions. This year, thousands more civilian lives have been squandered in bombing raids and other tragedies that are the direct consequence of US government policy. No wonder Jan Egelund, in charge of the UN’s humanitarian operations considered the $15 million aid offered by the US government to be "stingy". Even the increased figure of $35 million is not only a drop in the ocean for saving lives, but a tiny fraction of the wealth of the world’s wealthiest capitalists. UNICEF is struggling to send relief for 30,000 people to Sri Lanka when more than a million are homeless.

There has been a massive response in many countries to charities appealing for aid, showing the mood of deep sympathy and solidarity that has welled up. (In Britain, £25 million was collected in a few days – more even than the revised figure of the US government’s contribution!). But even broadcasters have been pointing to the grave fears that such donations will not reach the most needy people – early enough, if at all. Trade unions and other workers’ organisations in the donor countries must try to ensure the speedy despatch of aid. In the recipient countries, workers’ representatives must be able to intervene to ensure the resources for disaster relief and reconstruction are fairly distributed.

Look at the delays in aid reaching Aceh, with more than 40,000 deaths reported, because of the blocking of access by the Indonesian government and army. It is a disgrace that the Sri Lankan Army has, according to Tamil sources, blocked the transport of emergency supplies sent by Tamils abroad to reach the war-devastated North of the island.

In poverty-stricken Tamil Nadu, we can expect a repetition of what the journalist Peter Popham calls the "crafty manoeuvring of local political parties and politicians to ensure optimum seats on the gravy train". There will undoubtedly be more aid going to the better connected victims of the disaster than the lowest caste and ‘dalit’ families who are bereft of even a means to earn a living. (See separate article)

The cwi says: no discrimination in the distribution of aid on the basis of nationality, religion, caste or political affiliation.

We also say: There should be the maximum democratic control over all aid and emergency programmes through elected committees of workers and poor people in each area and nationally.

Workers and their organisations the key to survival

The working class is the only force that can mobilise to deal with the real crises arising from capitalist rule locally and internationally. First, in the immediate aftermath of the Tsunami catastrophe, the organised workers should be the main force for control over rescue and re-building operations, they should set the pace in establishing democratic control over relief work and rebuilding, and not leave the decisions in the hands of the authorities and self-seeking, corrupt bureaucrats. In Sri Lanka the unions and left parties must demand an end to war preparations and all moneys which have been made available for arms to go for the recovery and reconstruction programme.

This programme to include a massive injection of public money and money from the imperialist countries who have squeezed the economies of South Asia and Africa dry.

Cancel foreign debt, not just delay repayment. It is the ‘system’ that must be changed.

Socialists campaign for the complete transformation of society through a struggle against all forms of privatisation and de-regulation and for a government that will carry through the public ownership of all major industry, land and banks in order to democratically plan and control production according to need and not for profit and under the democratic control and management of the working class.

The future for Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka was dealt one of the severest blows (second probably to Aceh) from the December 26, 2004 tidal wave. In one overturned and submerged train alone, over 1,000 people probably perished. There are reports that as many as 6,000 were killed by the Tsunami in Mullaithivu in North-East Sri Lanka. Of course, the 20 year long civil war has taken the lives of more than ten times this figure and left the whole of the North like a wasteland with little or no infrastructure. Now, it is the area least able to cope with a ‘natural disaster’ like a tidal wave and the Tamil-dominated North is given the least publicity over the fate of its citizens. Additional perils are the unexploded landmines uncovered by the wave and the damage done to agricultural land by the salt water that scoured the fields.

The United Socialist Party (cwi in Sri Lanka) has long championed the national democratic rights of the Tamil-speaking people on the island of Sri Lanka. In the wake of the tidal wave disaster, it is even more vital to stress the need for unity amongst workers and the poor, and for the fullest rights to equal treatment and self-determination for any minority.

The USP has been campaigning for no return to civil war and for the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim working people to resolve the issues themselves. All efforts and resources must be poured into re-building the lives and homes of the people of the island and its economy, but this means breaking the grip of the ruling elite.

On a capitalist basis, Sri Lanka will never be able to fully develop its economy. For one thing, it cannot create the conditions for permanently solving the national conflict and is too weak to do anything except the bidding of blood-sucking imperialism. In the name of all the poor and exploited and the organised working class, the left parties must mobilise to bring relief to the disaster victims. But it must also redouble its efforts to build a workers’ movement on socialist policies capable of bringing about a transformation in the grim lives of workers and poor people of all creeds and nationalities. There is no point in waiting for capitalism and foreign aid to complete this task. Inherent in capitalism are wars, civil strife, exploitation and avoidable human disasters.

In recent documents of the CWI we have spoken of the massive repercussions for the mass of the world’s population of major clashes between the ‘tectonic plates’ of the major powers in Asia – Japan, India, China. On a capitalist basis, these too cannot be avoided. The tragedy of 26 December 2004 has given a glimpse of the horrors which hover over the lives of the billions of working and poor people of the Asian and African continents. Only by stepping up an organised and internationalised struggle against global capitalism and for truly democratic socialism can bring into prospect the elimination of man-made perils and the minimisation of the effects on human life of any genuine ‘act of nature’ still to come.


We ask any reader not yet acquainted with the ideas and campaigns of the CWI to read more on our web-site and to contact us directly.

 We would ask anyone who sympathises with what we say to contact us about discussions and joining our international.

In addition, we are appealing for any possible financial donations to alleviate the plight of our comrades in the United Socialist Party of Sri Lanka. The USP faces a real struggle for survival – physically and politically. As we have explained in an earlier announcement, some USP members are still missing and many have lost relatives and homes.

Fortunately we are assured by the comrades of Dudiyora Horaata in India and the comrades we know in the Parti Socialis Malaysia, that there have been no direct losses of life amongst their members.

Joe Higgins, the Socialist Party member of the Irish Parliament, has already financed an emergency shipment of water-purifying tablets for the USP comrades in Sri Lanka organised by the CWI and costing £272. A lot can be done with what are, in the developed capitalist countries, relatively small amounts. The CWI and USP are extremely appreciative of this and other contributions already made.

The immediate demand on resources has been for USP party workers to reach the areas worst affected by the disaster. It has been vital, in the absence of any communications, to find out the situation of the party’s members and bring them vital supplies of clean water, food and medical aid. We understand that hospitals are having to turn away any but the most severely injured casualties for lack of space and resources. Some will be without even a roof over their heads and many will be looking to the party for consolation and strength to continue in the face of great personal loss.

A no lesser demand on resources is to enable production of the party’s newspaper and new leaflets and posters dealing with the disaster – its causes and the remedies. In these the USP will carry the message of the party and the CWI to the workers and youth of Sri Lanka who are struggling to understand what has happened and what needs to be done. The party needs help also in its campaigns to build united organisations of working and poor people and representative, elected bodies. These are vital in order to ensure that programmes of aid and reconstruction will be geared to the people who most need it, but also in order to campaign for a different, socialist way of organising society.

Donations should be made to ‘Campaign Sri Lanka’ and sent to:

Committee for a Workers’ International

PO Box 3688, London, Britain, E11 1YE

Messages of support can be sent to the USP in Sri Lanka directly: (subject to the e-mail working)

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