tsunami disaster: A month later, poverty still kills in Aceh and Sri Lanka

One month after the tsunami disaster struck the coasts of the Indian Ocean the costs are still being counted.

The death toll has gone way over a quarter of a million with the latest addition of 60,000 to the figure for Aceh, northern Sumatra where a massive 220,000 are now said to have perished. The jobs of half a million more in that country were destroyed.

Scenes of the massive wall of water sweeping through the capital, Banda Aceh, have been played and replayed on our television screens and the picture of the mosque standing tall in a flattened wasteland is still featured in the press. But these images only confirm our initial verdict that it was poverty that killed. One strongly built mosque withstood what hundreds of thousands of lightly constructed poor people’s homes could not. How many tens of thousands were killed by the collapsing houses here and elsewhere after the tsunamis had struck?


And how many tens of thousands of lives could have been saved by an adequate warning system? After the Dutch auction of governments bidding each other up on aid pledges, under the vast pressure of public sympathy and generosity, then you had the unseemly scrabble between governments to be seen as the best at installing an early warning system for the Indian Ocean. The total cost of the death and destruction wreaked on 26 December is in the billions of dollars (and even then, held lower by the minimal value of so many of the homes and livelihoods destroyed); yet the cost of installing an early warning system is between $20 and $30 million.

And now, how many of the millions of homeless are still to die because of the bungling, mishandling and undoubtedly widespread corruption surrounding the distribution of aid and essential medical supplies? A report released by the World Health Organisation last week-end talks of the ‘chaos’ wrought by the Indonesian military and civilian agencies in Aceh, only making a bad situation in the camps even more unbearable.

Presidential blunders

In Sri Lanka, too, there has been huge discontent expressed by those made homeless – both about their immediate squalid conditions but also about the plans for their future homes. A plan to build 60 new towns three miles or so inland to replace villages destroyed on the Sri Lankan coast, has been hastily drawn up with no consultation with the displaced people themselves or consideration for cultural differences in the population.

The president, Chandrika Kumarasinghe, has been just as thoughtless in relation to this as she was in declaring her intention of adopting a Tamil girl child after the disaster (and after blocking Kofi Annan from visiting the Tamil north of the island!). She now insists on a scheme where Muslim and other Tamil-speaking people should be (compulsorily) made to share three storey blocks together. And this in an area where everyone had at least a small separate enclosure or garden around their homes before the wave came.

"At the moment we all live in harmony," said one former Hanbantota resident, "But separately". "Not once have we been asked how or where we want to live", said a fisherman living in a tent near the beach. "Everything about it (Siribopura, the new town) is wrong. It’s going to turn into a slum within a year".

Cancel the poor people’s debts!

The president has also insisted that people wanting to rebuild their own houses and restart their lives should take out loans through private banks. The United Socialist Party (CWI in Sri Lanka) has said no way! No more crippling debt! In fact, if some of the country’s debt to the world’s banks and governments is being cancelled, says the USP, those resources should be used to cancel all the debts of the poverty-stricken small farmers and fishermen of Sri Lanka. Full compensation to all those who have lost their homes and livelihoods. Interest free loans for re-starting any small endeavours of the tsunami-stricken people. Nationalisation of the banks to make this possible.

Rebuilding the infrastructure in Sri Lanka, including railways and roads, where they existed and improving on them is a tall order and will require billions of dollars. The money should be switched, says the USP, from military expenditure into a massive programme of public works. In Sri Lanka, in Aceh and throughout the region, all relief and rebuilding should be under the control of elected representatives of workers, of displaced people in the camps and other poor people.

Poverty and war in Aceh

Talk of rebuilding the infrastructure of Aceh is almost farcical, since hardly any existed. Though the Indonesian military forces have been helping firms like Exxon Mobile extract the mineral wealth of the province, and making themselves rich in the process, the majority of Aceh’s population lived on the brink of total destitution. Faith in life is fading.

Now the newly elected president of Indonesia, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, is trying to convince donors and world imperialism he is intent on bringing the 30 year long war between Aceh liberation fighters (mainly organised by Gam) and the Indonesian Army (the TNA) to an end. There are due to be talks between his government and the Aceh separatists in Helsinki this week. But it is clear that the Indonesian military in Aceh has no intention of relinquishing their iron grip on the province, insisting that armed troops accompany all relief teams. Since 26 December and the declaration of a cease-fire by Gam, more than 120 alleged fighters have been killed by the TNA.

Hopes of peace

In Sri Lanka, there have been some moves towards re-starting the peace talks between the Tamil Tigers of the north and the Sri Lankan government. In the last week, a top representative of the Norwegian government which has been acting as mediator, visited the LTTE leader, Prabhakaran. He was no doubt told of the initial uneven distribution of disaster aid, with outright discrimination against the north. He would also have been told of the huge efforts made by (Tamil) hospital staff in Jaffna to save the lives of numerous Sri Lankan naval personnel when their base in the North-East was almost totally destroyed by the tsunami. In contrast, the pro-government Sinhala press had carried stories aimed at deliberately demoralising the ‘enemy’ when they described an elaborate coffin being transported north which must have been for the burial of Prabhakaran himself killed by the tsunami!

As we explained in earlier CWI material, as everywhere else, the Sri Lankan people united in the face of adversity. Tamil and Sinhala pulled together. But the chauvinists lost no time in trying to sabotage any attempts to help Tamil-speaking people. The prime minister and some MPs from the JVP (a party that mixes Sinhala communalism with ‘Marxist’ phraseology) visited one of the many camps in the north organised and run by the LTTE, now, because of protests, without the Sri Lankan Army trying to control them. They did not even get a chance to speak. They were howled at and chased out by women with brooms in hand, the worst insult to any ‘guest’!

By contrast, representatives of the USP visiting the very next day got a warm response. They went particularly into the way the USA, India and other countries were sending troops into Sri Lanka with their own imperialist interests to the fore. The demand for the US and Indian troops to be withdrawn and no militarisation of aid went down well.

The political struggle against the Chandrika government is only just beginning. Last week during her visit to lay the first brick of Siribopura (and studiously avoiding visiting the camps of the homeless around Hambantota itself), the president made clear how she would use the crisis to strengthen her Bonapartist, almost dictatorial powers.

There would be no elections for five years, she declared. There will be a referendum to get the approval of the people!…The privatisation of the phosphate industry (long resisted by workers’ action) will go ahead now and so will the rest of the programme of the World Bank. "We need the money!"…"Some people will be opposed. We will not put them in prison, but in a hotel, feed them and stop them talking!"

Siritunga Jayasuriya, secretary of the USP, commented: "People will react, there will be a boomerang effect – A big tsunami against the government."

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January 2005