Indian ocean disaster: Aftermath of Tsunami in Sri Lanka

As in every country around the world, in Sri Lanka the people have reacted far more quickly than their government. It is an excellent opportunity for the masses to work together and to realise that co-existing and cooperation are possible and to experience them. Unfortunately, the authorities are not using this opportunity to forge unity, but the opposite.

Comments on the situation, especially in the north and east of Sri Lanka, from Senan, a cwi member from Jaffna, living in London. He includes comments from phone conversations with Siritunga Jayasuriya, Secretary of the United Socialist Party (cwi in Sri Lanka).

Aftermath of Tsunami in Sri Lanka

The USP (United Socialist Party – the cwi section in Sri Lanka) has condemned the way the government is treating the disaster victims and calls for the aid operation to be under the control of elected committees of workers and poor people and without any discrimination on the basis of nationality, religion or caste.

North of country devastated by civil war, now by natural disaster

People from the south of the island have been more than willing to take aid to the north, including to areas controlled by the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). Government Sinhala papers in the South managed to frighten off many from doing this. There is no way to take aid to the affected areas, which are under the control of the LTTE, without the help of the LTTE itself.

The ‘Tigers’ quickly blamed the government for blocking the aid and are appealing to the international community to give aid to them directly. President Chandrika Kumaratunga warned that such accusations and appeals might further split the country, just trying to recover from 20 years of civil war. For several days after the disaster, none of the external aid got through to the affected areas in the North-East.

Several TNA (Tamil National Alliance) MPs have publicly condemned the appalling government actions (and inactions). While the mass of people North and South were struggling to feed themselves and find shelter, the Minister of Public Security, Law and Order and Buddhist affairs, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, found time and money to do a survey of damaged buildings and monuments across Sri Lanka just to make the openly chauvinist comment: "Although most temples in those districts were devastated by tidal waves, Buddha statues in temples were unharmed". He claimed this was proof that non-Buddhist religions like Hinduism and Islam were evil! This is how the initial genuine attempts made by the Sinhala and Tamil masses to work together are being undermined by racist, communal politicians like him in the South.

The LTTE has reported that several lorries sent by TRO (the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation of the LTTE) to the eastern district of Trincomalee were hijacked by the Sinhala chauvinist JVP. This pushed the LTTE to form a disaster management task force together with several NGOs (Non Government Organisations). The situation got even worse when the government decided to ban UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan, from visiting affected areas in the North-East. Kofi Annan told the government that he was on a humanitarian and not a political visit. However the GOSL (Government of Sri Lanka) refused to grant him permission.

Immediately after the disaster the government’s official propaganda machine was in full swing. The pro-government Sinhala media in the South immediately spread rumours that the LTTE leader, Pirabakaran and its Intelligence Chief, Pottu Amman, had died when the tsunami struck. They also claimed that one of the refugee camps in the north was set on fire by LTTE members. The LTTE claims that a group of Sri Lankan soldiers did it when the refugees refused their aid offer. Instead of easing the tension between the communities, all the government is doing is to further fuel the divisions.

Military opportunism

The Chandrika government is systematically using the army to sabotage the aid operation. The TNA and LTTE have condemned the military take-over of the welfare and aid centres. Poor people from the north will undoubtedly be suspicious of aid from the military. The twenty-year-old war created a disaster nothing short of the one they are facing now, with more than 60,000 people losing their life. Many of those were through the direct bombing and continual shelling conducted by the Sri Lankan forces. The historical role of the Sri Lankan military in the north makes them the last choice to lead any kind of aid work. However the Sri Lankan Government made it the first choice. India and the US have also presented military support to the government.

The Indonesian government, corrupt and dictatorial as it may be, refused the offer from Tony Blair to send Ghurkha forces, precisely because of their terrible historical role in the past. By contrast, the Sri Lankan government has more than welcomed Indian military support regardless of the sensitivities amongst the Tamil-speaking population. The poor masses of the North have not yet forgotten the destruction and tyranny the Indian forces brought with them on their last visit to the country on a so-called ‘Peace-keeping’ mission.

India has its own imperialist interests in the region. So, of course, does the US government. Colin Powell, who visited Colombo last week, announced that the Sri Lankan government had asked for military aid within 48 hours of the disaster; that is the reason why the US naval force and some 1500 troops are in Sri Lanka. In reality they have been planning this for some time. Only a few months ago, the US Commander-in-Chief for the Pacific was in Sri Lanka to inaugurate some training programmes. They seized the opportunity to get into Sri Lanka, with an eye on Trincomalee as a base for its military operations. If the US gives help now, then obviously they will expect big favours in return.

When the US Secretary of State was asked about how long the military is planning to stay, he answered "As long as the government of Sri Lanka wants us to stay". This effectively means that as long as Chandrika’s government is in power we will continue to stay and look after our interests in the region. He also repeated the government line that, "The Tamil regions are getting as much, if not more of their proportion (of aid)". This is while people of the north are protesting against the government blockade of aid to LTTE-controlled areas.

Already through the TNA and various other press releases, the LTTE has expressed their dissatisfaction about the foreign military presence in Sri Lanka. If the US military advances towards the east of the country where the Sri Lankan Army bases are, then the LTTE will see this as a flagrant provocation. The harbour of Trincomalee is one of the most desirable harbours for any navy. During the colonial days, the British military forces used it as the centre for trade and military operations in the whole Indian Ocean. It is very well known that India also has an interest in the same place. Control of this area is understandably one of the focal points of the peace process discussions.

The foreign military presence will only destabilise this region of the Sri Lankan island and sabotage the peace process. All Sri Lanka needs at this difficult time is aid workers for relief and reconstruction operations.

Fishing communities worst hit

It is the fishing communities of Sri Lanka that are the most affected by the Tsunami, but they are the ones who are going to get most discriminated against. Those affected by the disaster were predominantly poor and working class. Their life depends on the sea. Unlike in countries in the west, people live near the sea for the sole purpose of fishing. But the Sri Lankan president, Kumaratunga, has banned the construction of new houses near the sea. If so, the government must provide efficient means for the fishermen to reach the sea, to do their work, or they will have to rebuild their small cottages near sea. They have survived on the basic day-to-day work around the fishing industry. Now they have lost everything. Fear on the part of Sri Lankans of eating contaminated fish makes it even harder for them to get back to their normal life.

Not only the houses destroyed by the sea should be replaced, but also the fishing equipment should be supplied free for them. Sritunga spoke of the need for an interest free loan to be given to them by the government to get back to their normal life. (Chandrika has begun to organise for loans to be made through private banks which the USP opposes.)

In the north, the fishing community is considered to be low caste and they run the risk of being discriminated against by the dominant upper caste. The upper caste occupies most of the leading government posts and have most of the leading business interests in the north and contribute substantially to the LTTE’s financial needs. The LTTE has the sole responsibility to ensure that aid is distributed without discrimination.  In the devastated East, the majority in some communities of Tamil-speaking people are Muslims. The USP has members in that area, many now displaced and living in camps. They will be fighting against any manifestations of discrimination with regard to aid and for democratically elected committees to be making all the decisions.

There are many NGOs (Non Governmental Organisations) doing good work in the disaster areas. Others are just aiming to compete and increase their profile in order to attract more funds to expand their operations. There were reports that at least 35 NGO were present in a village in India where only 55 people were still alive after the disaster! However poor they may be, these fishing communities lived with dignity. Now they have no other option than asking for food parcels. As these people are expected to compete with the upper caste people, they will be the last to get any benefit.

USP Secretary, Sritunga Jayasuriya, says also that the tens of thousands of working class and poor people you see on the street with their arms stretched out for food should not be treated as beggars. The USP is demanding that aid should be done through a system of rationing.

Destruction and reconstruction

In the South, the Ampara and Galle Districts were completely devastated. Thousands of houses were destroyed. Sritunga reported that bridges, roads, railway tracks were gone. More than 12 hospitals have been completely destroyed and 25 partially destroyed. 37 schools were completely destroyed and 90 schools partly destroyed. (The LTTE claims that in the north more than 200 schools have been destroyed.) More than 40,000 people have lost their lives and there are about 800,000 refugees. So far 798 camps have been set up. All these figures are likely to increase. In the North-East, many of the schools and hospitals that have been destroyed were only just in the process of reconstruction since the cease-fire in the 20-year long civil war.

Given the scale of the destruction, the reconstruction task is enormous. The Sri Lankan government estimates it would cost them more than $one billion in the first year itself. But the poor masses and the working class in Sri Lanka are not ready to trust the Government or any politicians. Lack of supply and political manoeuvring over supply has already started. Sri Lankan politicians always put their interests and their bank balances before the public benefit. Control of aid has already sparked tension between the LTTE and the government of Sri Lanka. Furthermore, the US Secretary of State indicated that the relief projects of the US would be under the direct control of the US. We all know what that means, because we know what happened in Iraq. Aid money will be given to the US or US partner companies, which will seek out ways to make the whole thing profitable for them. Whether it is for aid or for war, for the US and its companies, money spent should come back to them in massive profits. Despite the fact that the UN requested the aid programme to be coordinated by them, the US along with India, Thailand and Australia are initiating their own programs. Local Indian companies have shown great interest in taking over several relief projects. For the poor and working class, all these corporate relief efforts will only mean that their circumstances are going to get even worse.

The Sri Lankan government itself is not keen on reconstruction in rural areas; they have not done any major construction work in rural areas for decades. Most of the railway tracks that got destroyed were built by the British during the colonial period. Britain is also one of the countries that have come into the region with troops and aid for its own reasons. If its help is needed in reconstructing the railways, a ransom will be expected. Within this kind of situation there are always cases of misappropriation of funds and diversion to Swiss Banks of money meant for relieving the suffering of ordinary working and poor people.

There are reports that the Sri Lankan share market is already benefiting from the disaster. And the currency value is also increasing. Under the cover of a polite humanitarian appearance the capitalist class is already making profit from the Tsunami business. Meanwhile prices of essential goods and fuel rocket. The working and poor masses are very angry and it is an excellent opportunity to raise their consciousness to fight against this corporate madness.

Not surprisingly the so-called left JVP (People’s Liberation Front) is not doing anything of that sort. They have been on a sort of missionary visit to the north of the country only to be met by protesting masses. Wherever they went they were met by the protesting villagers.

USP programme

The cwi section in Sri Lanka – the USP (United Socialist Party) has a long history of fighting for the rights of the working class and the poor masses in Sri Lanka and for the rights of the Tamil-speaking people, up to and including an independent homeland if that is what they desire defending basic rights for minorities within it. The USP condemns the Sri Lankan discriminatory actions. Government is doing lots of talking. The real attempt towards any relief has not started yet.

USP Secretary Sritunga Jayasuriya reported that there is the possibility of riots breaking out in refugee camps. We have seen some signs of this in the north’s refugee camps. We are calling for maximum unity to overcome any national conflicts. We are calling for the working class to unite against the government’s divisive tactics.

 Workers’ councils elected by the workers and poor people should distribute the aid. We are calling for the setting up of committees of displaced people together with local trade unions and political parties to run the camps and centres. There should not be any discrimination based on race, religion or caste. Displaced people should not be treated like beggars. Aid should be distributed through a system of rationing whish should also be under the control of elected committees.

There should be no money made by the banks or private companies out of this disaster. Special arrangements should be made to ensure that people who had small shops or work-places will be compensated and assisted to restart their lives. Fishing equipment such as boats and nets should be given free to those whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the tsunami, along with interest free loans to re-start their lives.

 The government of Sri Lanka is already spending too much money on war efforts. We are calling to stop spending money on military. Also foreign military funding should be stopped. All money should be spent on aid and reconstruction programs. USP also calling for US army to leave. And there should no foreign military bases established to serve the interests of the imperialists. All attempts to militarise the situation should be stopped. The government should stop the army controlling the aid and welfare centres. All war resources should be allocated for reconstruction.

There should be democratic control over the allocation and distribution of all aid and reconstruction and over the running of the camps and aid centres through elected committees of workers and poor people and political and trade union organisations in proportion to support for them in each area. 

All foreign debts should be cancelled immediately. The IMF and the World Bank should pay back for reconstruction the massive sums which they have stolen from the Sri Lankan working class by means of high interest payments and highly exploitative profit-making methods.  

In Japan, once there is an earth-quake warning, all transport is immediately stopped. If there had been a similar system in Sri Lanka, the train that was lifted off the rails by the tsunami with two thousand people on it would not even have left Colombo station. All those lives were lost unnecessarily. It is the criminal responsibility of successive capitalist governments in Sri Lanka that they have failed to install the proper warning systems. The USP is demanding that all necessary Tsunami and natural disaster warning systems should be installed immediately.  

The USP is intending to conduct a poster campaign on all the major demands against the government and for democratic control over the disaster programmes. (One of the complications is that in the worst affected areas there are no walls to even put our posters on!). This is going to be a very tough but very necessary campaign.

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January 2005