Sri Lanka: Life after tsunami

A grotesque picture of devastation is slowly emerging and haunting us.

In the context of 40,000 reported deaths in Sri Lanka, the United Socialist Party has suffered big losses of its forces. In the recent meeting of the extended Central Committee of the party last Saturday, it was reported that, although no actual members of the party were lost, at least 86 supporters of the USP have died in the tsunami.

USP election meeting, Pottuvil, 1999. Siritunga Jayasuriya (centre) listening to Abdul Jabbar (seated second from right). Picture: Clare Doyle


The real brunt of the tsunami was taken by the eastern part of the island, the principal town Pottuvil has seen the worst disaster in its living memory. Nearly 2,000 homes were swept away without trace. The south-western coast was hit up to 30 minutes later. With the modern communications and scientific advancement available, the entire disaster and loss of life could have been averted with a mere warning for evacuation. But such is the bureaucratic bungling and non-availability of science to be used for the common good, that a gigantic disaster worsened by capitalist negligence had to happen.

Special congratulations are due to the self-sacrificing and heroic comrades of the United Socialist Party of Pottuvil. Within hours of the disaster, they swung into action to save people from dying in the debris and the swamp that was left by the killer tsunami.

The USP of Pottuvil literally saved nearly 120 families from death by going to an island created by the devastation when the only bridge was cut off due to inundation. The comrades led by comrade Abdul Jabbar, quickly put together makeshift catamarans to reach the other side. They took food and water to the many children, women and aged people who were stranded and saved them from starving to death. It was only due to the fighting efforts of the comrades of the USP, that the government agencies involved in relief work were forced to go to these areas to give succour.

Most of the eastern part of the island of Sri Lanka is historically a very poor and neglected area. The population are mostly Tamil-speaking Muslims. During the last twenty years of war the people of this region have been neither accepted by the south, as they are Tamil-speaking nor by northern Tamils who do not completely accept them as their own, as they belong to the Muslim community. sh:Tsunami in the South

Though there was a delay in the coming of the monster tsunami to the south and west of the island by half an hour to forty minutes, it was as deadly as it was anywhere else. As the entire southern coast, starting from south of Colombo (Morotuwa) to Hambantota, including Yala the National Animal sanctuary, was the tourist belt, many poor Sri Lankans were eking out a living based on the tourist industry on the very shores of the Indian ocean. In the aftermath of the disaster, it has become fashionable to say that these people knew they were within the danger line of a hundred metres from the roaring sea. But what else could they do? They are forced to risk their lives near the sea either because they live by fishing or because they are dependent on selling cottage industry products like masks and things to the tourists. One cannot imagine the devastation that has taken place. Middle-sized boats used for deep sea fishing were thrown up onto the roads. Very few can be salvaged. Homes which had people living in them have been reduced to rubble. The scenes of children’s toys, clothes and books stuck in the air, clinging on to the nearby shrubs and trees, haunts the passers-by.

The now infamous and ill-fated train – "Samudra Devi" ("Queen of the Sea") – started its journey on that fateful day from Colombo to Matara without any warning whatsoever of the killer that was coming. In fact, as it travelled, the engine driver of the train thought it was his duty and was more than willing to take on board people who had already been affected and were running for shelter. But as the train reached Akurala near Hikkaduwa a monster wave hit the train from the blue and threw the twelve carriage train along with the rails themselves a hundred metres away. At least ninety-five percent of the nearly 2,000 passengers were killed. Many travellers tried frantically through their mobile phones to get help, but with no luck.

It took the government agencies such as the police and medical services a whole 24 hours to reach that place. If an early aerial response had come to their rescue, many lives could have been saved. It is alleged that the delay in coming there was deliberate as the local police and other local vested interests were engaged in enriching themselves by looting the dead bodies for gold and money. The government eventually passed a legislative resolution to do a mass cremation of the dead bodies on that ill-fated train. Destruction and discrimination faced by the north

The USP made a special effort to visit the affected areas of the north, with a team of other left leaders, NGOs and the press. The USP went up to Mullathivu to see for itself the volume of the damage caused by the tsunami to the already war-ravaged Tamil people.

It must be emphasised here that for the USP this was not the first visit to the north since the cease-fire. The USP as a political party of all the working people has established its credentials by standing on a socialist programme in the past elections in this area also.

The visiting team first went to Jaffna and was met by the political leaders of the LTTE (Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam). At the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO) we had fraternal discussions to gauge the extent of the damage and also the discrimination that they face in relation to the supply of aid and relief items to the northern peninsula. To rub the salt into the wounds of the war-ravaged people, the Sri Lankan government’s decision to send the army to mange the relief camps is seen as an affront to the Tamil people.

Our team experienced no difficulty in going to the hitherto war areas. The Tamil authority that is in charge of the north did not obstruct the team from doing its own relief work for the people. The most arduous journey was to travel to the jungles of Mullathivu which is considered the stronghold of the LTTE, but it must be said that the people in general there and the LTTE in particular have suffered big damage from the tsunami. The entire Mullathivu town, which was once considered the prosperous fishermen’s town of the north, has been completely washed away. All the buildings, schools and other dwellings have landed in the sea. There is no sign of habitation left on the ground of the place once called Mullathivu. The extent of the monstrosity of the tsunami here can be gauged by the broken necks of the palm trees which are usually 10 metres high.

While the tsunami has brought death and destruction to the Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim ordinary working poor, once "happily" living all around on the shores of the Indian Ocean, the rich and elite are trying to solve their own crisis through the tsunami.

The Sri Lankan government was on the brink of a financial precipice. It was just left with three weeks worth of foreign exchange to do any governmental trade. The government had no money to fulfil the increased salary promises to the state sector employees. The interest payments on debt of $55 million were due, hanging by a thread over the heads of Chandrika Kumarasinga’s government. The tsunami has been more than a blessing in disguise to this SLFP-led, communal, JVP-infested government.

Even though the international media is talking about the fast recovery, nothing concrete has been started. The actual relief for the affected people is yet to be seen on the ground. Whatever foreign aid and medical relief is coming, is being siphoned off by JVP and SLFP supporters to their areas to increase their influence. But the relief felt through foreign exchange is so great that the weak Sri Lankan rupee, which was falling dramatically, has recovered by 20% as against the British pound and 10% against the US dollar in the last week because of the massive inflow of foreign aid.

This capitalist government, strengthened by the tsunami, has already started covert war games. While giving the task of managing the relief camps to the army is bad enough, the invitation to the American, British and Indian armies to come to Sri Lanka in the name of tsunami aid is nothing but an indirect act of war against all Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim people.

This weak, capitalist regime of Sri Lanka is on a dangerous and self-destructive course, incapable of solving the fundamental problems of the ordinary people such as poverty , disease, lack of  proper and safe housing, unemployment etc. Historically and today it depends on the forces of imperialism to do the policing on its behalf.

In this critical period of the history of Sri Lanka , the United Socialist Party demands and says:

  • No to the foreign (American, British and Indian) armies which have arrived in the name of tsunami aid.
  • The tsunami aid which is a product of the sacrifices of the working people around the world should go to the needy people directly as quickly as possible.
  • All the rehabilitation control and distribution should be in the hands of democratically elected committees of the affected people and the trade unions.
  • Shame on the war-hungry Sri Lankan capitalist class – both the opposition UNP and the ruling UPFA, which are in unison with the government in its war efforts! We demand this parliament to abolish the present defence budget and divert the same money to the rehabilitation efforts of the tsunami victims.

National convention

We demand the general left and the trade unions of Sri Lanka to rise to the occasion and come to the aid of tsunami-affected people. This can only be done by engaging the working class, the peasantry, fishermen, plantation workers and the tsunami-affected people in a National Convention of the working people of Sri Lanka.

This convention should discuss the issue of the democratic distribution of the aid and the rehabilitation of the people. It should also discuss the dangerous trend of imperialist interests that are developing in the Sri Lankan society. It should take the necessary steps to prevent such a disaster, which will be much more dangerous than the tsunami.

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January 2005