Indian ocean disaster: Capitalism condemned; socialism more necessary than ever

It is now more than two weeks since the killer tsunami crashed against the shores of the Indian Ocean.

After it, so much will never be the same; so much remains unchanged. Just as during wartime, all that is rotten in our global capitalist world is being laid bare.

Like war, this human catastrophe which has shocked the world with its gruesomeness, is exposing the skewed priorities of rulers and big business alike and pushing a whole new layer, especially of young people, to question and challenge the system. Like war, natural disasters can have revolutionary consequences. In fact, in 1883 a tsunami caused by the volcanic explosion of the island of Krakatoa, off the eastern coast of Sumatra, caused the local population to begin its revolt against Dutch colonial rule (blaming the occupiers’ god for the 40,000 deaths. Likewise, the Lisbon earthquake in the 18th century shook all the European established churches and that in Nicaragua in 1972 destroyed the last vestiges of support for the old regime, mired in corruption and incapable of rebuilding the capital, Managua.

The December 26, 2004 disaster has brought home to tens of millions around the world the precarious existence eked out by such vast numbers of the global population – not because of imminent threats from nature but because of being left in absolute poverty by the elites of the so-called rich nations and, in particular, their banks and multinational companies.

Millions of people around the Indian Ocean have been deprived by the tsunami of what little they had; billions are being robbed daily of the right to a decent life. None other than the Chairman of the World Bank, John Wolfensohn, described on his return from Sri Lanka how the ‘tsunami’ of MFA quota arrangements coming to an end will slaughter the jobs of a third of a million, mostly female, garment workers in Sri Lanka. (The same man approves each year the issuing of additional loans of £20 billion – a further burden for the ex-colonial countries to carry.)

We have seen, even in the ‘advanced’ capitalist countries affected by this natural disaster that, as in war, truth is also the first victim of a natural disaster. The Swedish and British governments, in trying to conceal the numbers of their citizens killed by the tsunami, and their own incompetence in reacting to the emergency, have earned the justifiable derision of many of their electors.

In Spain last year, the party of Aznar was punished for lying over the Madrid bombings. The behaviour of governments, revealed in the aftermath of the tsunami could have long-term repercussions. Failure to develop warning systems, cover-ups over deaths, corruption and bungling of disaster relief and reconstruction – all are issues that, especially with revolutionary agitation, could be the downfall of apparently quite powerful governments.

Historical precedents

As during the famine in Russia in the year 1906, revolutionary socialists are duty bound to demand that the truth be told – about who is to blame for the scale of the disaster, for bungling the response and sabotaging relief efforts. Workers and young people must demand not only ‘transparency’ in relation to the facts and the emergency operations. They must also mobilise to take control out of the hands of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats and run the distribution of aid and the allocation of re-building projects through their own elected committees at every level. Accounts of all aid given and of its distribution must be open for scrutiny.

Extreme generosity

Still coming to light, after more than two weeks, are numerous individual dramas of the day itself – of tragic losses, of unimaginable terror, of incredible survival and of extraordinary heroism and selflessness. Scenes are still being shown of devastation and loss of life that can only be likened to the aftermath of a nuclear attack such as Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

The generosity of millions of people around the world, many of them with little income themselves – pensioners, school students, workers wanting to travel to the disaster areas to give assistance – has been staggering. (It has also dealt a blow against the ideas of racism.)

By contrast, the word "stingy" has been widely accepted as the best way to describe the top politicians, governments and multinational companies in relation to appeals for help. Apparently without a second thought, George W. Bush, one of the richest politicians in the world and the most powerful, who has given a paltry $10,000 to the disaster appeals, is going ahead with plans to spend $50 million on a party to celebrate his inauguration for a second term as president of the United States. (More like a coronation!) Vodafone has managed to part with just one hour’s worth of its profits.

The Bush government after offering a truly stingy $20 million for the relief effort in the first instance and then $35 million, upped the amount to $350million. This is still, as the writer George Monbiot has underlined, the equivalent of only one and a half days’ spending in Iraq, where the US military continues to kill and maim ordinary civilians.

Stung by both the scale of the disaster and the massive public response, and seeing an opportunity to enhance their image at home and abroad, governments have now entered a "Dutch auction" or ghoulish competition as to who can give the most. The US figure is still short of the $500 million promised by the Japanese government, the £600 million of the Schroeder government in Germany and the £750 from the Howard government in Australia.

In Britain, the government, after offering an initial £1million has been embarrassed by the rising mountain of personal donations – over £100 million (or $200 million) in two weeks, promising to match public donations pound for pound. Internationally a total nearing $8 billion has been pledged. But scepticism abounds, based on the record of previous disaster funds, as to whether governments and companies will actually hand over even half of what they have pledged. The optimists are also forced to admit that even if all the aid promised materialises, it falls far short of what is needed. It would not cover the cost of relief and the reconstruction of the meagre buildings and transport systems that existed before, let alone of building the vastly improved housing, communications and infrastructure that so many individual contributors want to see in the region.

The debt scandal

The scandalous statistics, gaining wide publicity, about the massive ransom demanded by the rich and powerful from the poorest nations, for the privilege of being granted vital loans, have shocked the world almost as much as the Tsunami disaster itself (See separate article). No wonder the demand for suspending and even cancelling the debts of these countries, mainly to rich foreign governments and banks, has been forced onto the agenda. The CWI has long made the call for all debts from neo-colonial countries to be totally cancelled. In the face of the tsunami disaster, it is on the lips of many. But, even in the anti-globalisation movement, concerned as it is for the plight of the poor world-wide, there are many who say it is ‘unrealistic’. We have always explained that the capitalist system itself is unlikely to agree to such measures but they are a vital part of any socialist programme.

Capitalist governments can be forced by the development of a mass movement to accept debt default; but only then. We have always argued for the nationalisation of the major banks and finance houses to eliminate profiteering from poverty and institute control over financing in the hands of elected workers’ representatives. Payments of interest on foreign debt by neo-colonial countries far outweigh the inflows they receive – in loans and aid. (Another case of Robin Hood in reverse; robbing the poor to pay the rich.)

The banks, governments and multinational companies to whom the money is owed will demand every pound of flesh – if not from the countries to whom the money was loaned, then from the "enlightened" governments who want to see such "forgiveness" enacted. And the very idea that debt is a sin to be "forgiven" is a scandal, given the mega external and internal debts of the most powerful country in the world – the USA.

As pressure has mounted on the issue of debt, so has the demand not to ‘rob Peter to pay Paul’. In this context, Britain’s Finance Minister, Gordon Brown, has advocated debt relief in relation to Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the tsunami-hit region, but also launched the idea of a new version of the Marshall Plan, "Raising an additional 50 billions a year". These would still be in the form of grants or bonds rather than outright gifts. That seems to be just another form of loans or the ‘live now, pay later’ ‘solution’ familiar to neo-colonial countries, especially in Africa, where, on a capitalist basis, they will never be free of gruelling debt.

However, Brown is reflecting the strength of feeling that has built up about the inequities of debt burdens in the "third" world. His declared aim is to begin to redress the downward spiral of poverty in Africa as well as Asia. Aid to Africa has halved since the end of the second world war. In the past, the fear of capitalist governments that workers in these countries could strive towards a social system where capitalism was eliminated kept the aid flowing. Brown’s figures amount to just half the value of the post-war Marshall Plan for Europe. The US government was forced to find this ‘aid’ for rebuilding the main market for its goods and to stave off the threat of "communism".

Without the cold war conflict between two antagonistic social systems, when aid was used to literally buy political support, Africa has been allowed to become a ‘lost continent’. The scale of the task of eliminating poverty in the world has been brought home by another statistic being widely publicised. Every week 150,000 people die in Africa from preventable illnesses associated with shortages of food, clean water, sanitation. This is equivalent to the death toll of the Indian Ocean tsunami every seven or eight days.

More united; more divided

The most international of disasters – that of 26 December 2004 – has brought the world together in grief and in a genuine feeling of solidarity. It has brought out the best in the working class and young people across the globe. A widespread consciousness exists that the very globalisation that has brought with it the internet and the mobile phone, is built on the super-exploitation of countries and peoples the other side of the world. The post-tsunami mood encompasses the compassion of the anti-war movement writ large. But it also represents a consciousness that can achieve only limited expression within the confines of class, capitalist society. It develops from a feeling that things cannot continue like this and poses the question of a new society. It can find real expression only in the socialist transformation of society and the development onto another plane of all the selflessness and cooperative solidarity that people have shown in the wake of the tsunami disaster.

In the areas worst affected there was also a heartening collaboration between working and poor people of different nationalities and castes who have often been pitted against each other. This includes in areas where there have been decades of military repression of national rights such as Aceh and in North East Sri Lanka. As we explained at the beginning of this crisis, great hopes were raised that unity in adversity would prevail. In countries outside the region, there was also supposed to be a united response, regardless of class, party or individual antagonisms. Differences would be buried. Instead, tensions and already existing rivalries have actually been intensified.

In Britain, Blair and Brown battle to be seen as the most caring and sensitive. Both aim to show that Britain leads the way in Europe and even in the G8. The US administration has decided to use the Indian Ocean disaster to gain power and prestige in the region itself. The 9/11 attack on the Twin Towers in New York saw a stepping up of the US presence in the Pacific region (and Central Asia) under the guise of the war against terrorism. Now, after the devastation caused by the December 26 tsunami, US marines and warships are arriving in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, under the cloak of humanitarian aid. One US marine remarked to reporters that it was strange dropping food parcels in Aceh. Only a week earlier he had been dropping bombs in Iraq.

But Bush has undoubtedly decided to take advantage of the situation and conduct a charm offensive in the wake of the disaster to gain prestige, including among Muslims at home, and to step up the US military presence in the Indian Ocean region. It is an attempt to re-brand US imperialism as a caring force compared with its murderous role in Iraq.

Bush has come out for the immediate installation of an early warning system in the region. Such equipment and improved communications generally would have cost a few million dollars to provide and $2million a year to maintain. Scientists still agree that such provisions would have saved the lives of the majority of the more than 150,000 victims, but it was rejected as unnecessary by both Asian and US governments before December 26, 2004.

Regional ambitions

Bush has switched tack, also under pressure, to soften relations with the United Nations rather than go ahead with a restricted ‘Core Group’. He has sent Colin Powell, on his last mission before stepping down as Secretary of State, briefly to Thailand and Sri Lanka and, most importantly, to Indonesia.

As he arrived in Jakarta, capital of the world’s most populous Islamic country, he declared that Muslims there, along with the rest of the world, had "An opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action…And I hope as a result of our efforts … that value system of ours will be reinforced." The US relief work, he added, should also: "Dry up pools of dissatisfaction which might give rise to terrorist activity"!

This is utopian. All the foreign dignitaries visiting the disaster-struck areas in the Indian Ocean region (and getting in the way of urgent relief operations) have been visibly shaken by what they have seen. But as the BBC’s correspondent, Jonathan Head has underlined, they have had no idea of the extreme poverty and backwardness of the living and working conditions of the majority of the region’s population. Also few in the world have been aware of the decades long struggles of the Acehnese – against Dutch colonial rule, against the Japanese invaders and against national oppression at the hands of Jakarta-based governments to this day.

Apart from the recent brief cease-fire, the Indonesian government – a thinly disguised military regime – has been at war with the whole Acehan people, not just the guerrilla force of GAM, killing them and suppressing their rights on a mass scale. Fighting has resumed in some areas and in a few weeks, when the media leaves the area, the emergency will be reimposed and no reporters will be allowed into the region to witness the carnage of war on top of the wiping out of large parts of Aceh’s capital and other whole towns and villages by the tsunami.

In Sri Lanka, Colin Powell had no intention of visiting the North of Sri Lanka. He was assured that aid was being more than fairly distributed to the areas virtually controlled by the Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam. On the other hand, Kofi Annan, visiting the following day and wanting to travel North was barred by the country’s president, Chandrika Bandaranaike. He complained politely but the head of the LTTE;’s political wing, Thamilchelvan, made a statement which accused her and the Government of deliberately aggravating the tensions that already exist over the Army domination of refugee camps etc. In spite of shining examples of ordinary Sinhala and Tamil workers, farmers and fishermen showing unstinting solidarity in the face of the disaster, the politicians, looking after their own communal interests are creating a situation where open military hostilities could be resumed at great cost to the population and the country’s exchequer.


In other disaster-affected areas, ethnic and caste tensions can also flare up at any time. Others are not too far under the surface. In India, tempers can explode. A workers’ party, especially a revolutionary one, would demand the government step down even over its bungling of communicating a warning it received of an approaching tsunami, in the early morning of 26 December. Moreover, while refusing foreign aid, partly out of hostility to the US or other military power getting near its own military installations, a revolutionary socialist party would also call the government to account over its failure to provide ample relief to the areas worst affected, like the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the coast of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. (A nuclear installation in India was also flooded, setting off a wave of fear in the area.).

In its opposition to aid from foreign forces and in sending its own troops and, under cover of aid, to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia, the Indian capitalist class is also pursuing its own ambitions in the region. Aiming to rival China and Japan in the whole of Asia, the ruling class of India is, to some extent, playing the game of bluff.

Thailand has suffered heavily from the Tsunami, and although it is a relatively more prosperous country, the most poverty stricken communities need immediate aid. A special section of the population who will be among the most neglected are those in the affected areas who were among the 2 million Burmese who had fled the brutal dictatorship in their country to live and work in Thailand.

The billionaire Prime Minster, Thaksin, has refused foreign aid, apart from the offers made by countries whose nationals are affected. Judging by the recent mass murder at the hands of Thai state forces of Islamic protesters in the South of the country in October last year, ethnic and national minorities in Thailand cannot hope for the same assistance in contacting loved ones as the foreign holiday-makers still searching for the thousands still missing. Equally, how can meaningful talks be held with representatives of the World Bank and the IMF, when it is these globalising institutions that have forced most neo-colonial countries to adopt policies which drive the majority of the population into even worse poverty and exploitation? What hypocrisy on the part of retail chains like New Look who donated the first two hours income from trading for one day to the disaster fund but continue to rake in the profits made from cheap, predominantly female, labour in the ‘free trade’ zones of Sri Lanka and other tsunami-hit countries of Asia.

None of the underlying daily economic disasters befalling these peoples of the Indian Ocean region of the world or of Africa – a continent struggling for survival – is going to be solved on a capitalist basis. One thing that the tsunami disaster has done is to expose the depth of poverty and exploitation in ‘Third World’ countries. Young people in particular are moved not only to give assistance, but to do something to change the world.

The ruling capitalist classes fear the exposure of the real state of affairs in their world. They fear the assertion by oppressed nations of their right to independence and will continue to oppose it. They fear the anger of the youth and the renaissance of the workers’ movement that can struggle for an end to their system of exploitation and poverty.

The devastation wrought by the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004 has held up a mirror to the ghastly death and destruction in store for the planet if nothing is done very soon to stop the terrifying consequences of global warming from ‘greenhouse gasses’. The planet and its population are certainly moving rapidly towards annihilation. A recent British television documentary made by Marcel Theroux showed the Chair of Shell, Lord Roxborough, expressing some concern about the calamitous effects of carbon emissions, but being cautioned by a company public relations ‘censor’ not to go any further. There were dire predictions from ‘Friends of the Earth’ activist, Lovelock that within 30 – 40 years, the melting Arctic ice cap will push sea levels up by 14 to 17 feet. This would mean all the world’s major cities being drowned and the death toll from sudden surges of the sea killing as many as one billion people, unable to escape.

Capitalism not interested in lives of millions

This dwarfs the tsunami disaster of the end of last year. But 150,000 is 150,000 too many victims. Natural disasters cannot be avoided, but practically all of the deaths resulting from them can and so can global warming.

It is a disgrace that no early warning system existed in the Indian Ocean. Just a few examples of ‘miracle’ escapes organised by people who understood in advance what was going to happen – in India, Sri Lanka and on the remote Teresa island – show how few need have died as a result of the ‘natural disaster’ caused by the tsunami. In the middle of last year, cuts were actually made in the early warning system in the Atlantic Ocean, for fiancial reasons. In the light of December 26 2004, these must be immediately restored. In Sweden, cuts were made in the government’s spending on emergency communications which hampered the response to the tsunami in Asia. These too must be restored.

We are demanding the establishment of early warning systems in every area that can experience life-threatening occurrences on land or sea – earthquakes, volcano eruptions, tsunamis, hurricanes and floods. We fight to replace the unplanned, chaotic and miserly system of capitalism which is incapable of preparing and mitigating the worst effects of natural disasters. It is a system based on the short-term, geared to profit. It cannot fulfil either the immediate or the long-term needs of the majority in society – the working class and the poor.

Class society and capitalism are overwhelmingly responsible for the precarious existence of the whole world’s population. It does not take into account or prepare the necessary warnings and measures to control the damage caused by ‘natural’ phenomena. It allows millions to die from AIDS, malaria and other preventable diseases.

The tsunami disaster must be seen as a brutal wake-up call to all those who want to change the world. Get involved in the struggle for a socialist society and a truly internationalist global society. We have glimpsed the human qualities that can make it work and the barriers erected by capitalism that militate against it. The world after 26 December 2004 is crying out to be organised and integrated on a global plane and in a coordinated and democratic manner.

The building of a party and programme to break the grip of big business on our lives cannot be postponed. State ownership and the harnessing and planned use of all human and natural resources is the only way forward, with the planning carried out by democratically elected committees of workers and poor people at every level of society. The CWI fights for an international federation of truly socialist states as the only way to provide maximum protection of humankind from all forms of disaster and to develop a society of harmony and cooperation that ends wars, civil wars, poverty and hunger for ever.

Military ‘aid’ following the tsunami disaster:-

Other Nato states: French helicopter carrier, German navy supply ship, 14 C-130s from various member-states

India: Has 16,000 personnel with 32 ships deployed both in own disaster area and Sri Lanka, Maldives and Indonesia

Other states: Three Russian Il-76 transport aircraft, Japanese naval craft

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January 2005