Sri Lanka: Tsunami and since

Scandal of government ‘relief’ fuels social, political and national crisis

The way the Sri Lankan government tom-tomed the so-called "Rebuild the Nation" operation after Tsunami, many wondered, seeing the massive colourful advertisement campaign, if the ‘paradise lost’ was really being brought back. The whole jamboree was staged just to dazzle the donor country dignitaries to be more liberal in their handouts.

Nearly a million people gravely affected by the killer Tsunami had great expectations from the government, the United Peoples Freedom Alliance (UPFA), having received massive aid from various countries, is playing politics in the relief distribution. It is two months since the Tsunami happened, but no tangible and real relief has been given to the affected. Mr Tilak Ranaviraja, the commissioner of essential services, is quoted as saying that only 30% of the total affected has got any relief.

The so-called relief is pathetic even by Sri Lanka’s standards. What is being meted out is a paltry sum of Rs.15, 000 to the families of the dead, Rs. 5,000 to ‘restart life’, Rs.2, 500 to buy household utensils, and a weekly food ration worth Rs. 375. This amounts to nothing when it is compared with the level of inflation.

Prices are going through the roof since the Tsunami; an egg that cost Rs. 4 prior to the disaster now comes at an astronomical Rs. 8.50. Even this promised "bounty relief" won’t come unless you stand six to eight hours in queues every other day. It is a common sight that the distribution of relief is rampant with nepotism and bureaucracy, many residents in the relief camps wail, "It is better to starve and die rather than suffer and get humiliated in the queues".

The number of families who have been affected to one degree or another on an all-island basis is too huge to contemplate. 17,439 families are still languishing in the "relief" camps. Nearly 413,000 displaced families are staying with friends and relatives, as they cannot cope with the harsh conditions in the camps. According to the government figures, the total number of displaced are 548,931 families, but independent sources put that number at 896,000.

Riots have developed in various camps against the abysmal quality of life in them. Spontaneous demonstrations against the inadequacies in the camps have taken place in the towns of Galle and Matara, in the south, and also in the east of Sri Lanka. 4, 000 to 5,000 people are seen in the protests shouting anti-government slogans; their main complaint is that the government is treating its own citizens as beggars.

Building regulations

Another major political controversy developing since the Tsunami in Sri Lanka is the imposition of the ban on its people building anything within the 100 metres from the coast. The 100 metre ban is highly debatable, given the political economy of the island country, which predominantly bases itself on fishing and tourism. The issue of this ban is a tinder-box of social explosions.

Besides, the rule itself is very unscientific and discriminatory. For example, many of the areas worst hit by the tsunami in the south are farther than 100 metres from the coast.

In a place called Beruvala, on the coastline, which is 50 miles from Colombo, one could see the worst devastation, but the next town and the other nearby ones on the same coast line, and as near as Beruvala to the sea, are untouched by the killer waves of tsunami. Furthermore, it is hypocritical on the part of the government to ask the poor fisherman, and other working class families, to move out from where they were living hitherto, while the state bus lanes (highways) and railways are still there, well within the limits of danger.

Here one has to recall the ghastly incident during the tsunami, when the entire train ‘Samudra Devi’ (Queen of the Sea) was thrown 100 metres and beyond by the waves, killing 2,500 who were on the train.

Meanwhile, the opposition capitalist party, the United National Party (UNP), is taking advantage of the situation and calling for defiance. For example, the leader of the UNP and ex-prime minister, Ranil Wickremasinghe, speaking at a meeting in Matara, gave a call to "defy the ban".

The United Socialist Party (USP, CWI Sri Lanka) is mobilising opinion on this question, to force the government to take up the issue of the ban on a ‘case by case’ basis with a scientific approach. The USP is demanding rehabilitation of the people who will be affected by the 100 metre ban, by providing alternative ‘good lands’ and also employment opportunities and sufficient financial grants to rebuild their lives.

Party favouritism

Tsunami or no tsunami, the attitude of ruling classes is the same in all circumstances towards their people. In Sri Lanka, the political favouritism and party nepotism is so rampant that even the partners of the ruling UPFA have come out openly against the dominant Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) on some issues, making statements and boycotting a vote in parliament. While 40% of the worst destruction has been experienced in the east, 20% in the north, 30% in the south, and 10% in the west, the major rehabilitation project has been mounted in Hambantota, in the south, which is the political constituency of the present Prime Minister, Mahinda Rajapakshe.

Hardly any visible relief is provided to the Tamils and Muslims in the north and the east, which together suffered 60% of the devastation. Even donor countries are voicing their criticism against this blatant discrimination. Only the USP is campaigning vigorously against this political corruption. Through its special broadsheet, ‘Tsunami Janahanda’ (Voice of the Tsunami People), the USP is high-lighting these issues to organise the people against the government and the bureaucracy.

It is a widely discussed fact that the only substantial beneficiary from the Tsunami is Chandrika’s UPFA government. The coffers of the administration had only one week’s foreign exchange reserves on the day it struck, but the bounty from tsunami has bailed out the President from the immediate crisis. The rescheduling of the payment of loans to the IMF, the World Bank, and the Asian Development Bank, has given a new lease of life to the incumbent government of Sri Lanka.

But the vultures are hungry; the dirty triumvirate of the IMF, the World Bank, and the Asia Development Bank, want their pound of flesh for having helped the Sri Lankan capitalist government. Before that, the pressure of the masses and the monumental crisis of the Sri Lankan capitalist class had put the far-reaching neo-liberal reforms (stripping the assets of the ordinary working people) on the back burner.

New attacks, new battles

But now, Chandrika’s UPFA government, with the tsunami disaster as an alibi, has adopted extremely dangerous emergency powers and is proposing a full-scale privatisation spree. Water, electricity, oil, and phosphate mining are being privatised. The railway is also targeted for partial privatisation. The much resented, environmentally disastrous, Kotmale mega dam project is being restarted. When it comes to the dictates of the IMF and the WTO, both the principal pro-capitalist parties – the UNP and the SLFP – cooperate with each other and carry on the business in unison. Now the UPFA, led by the SLFP, is restarting "Regain Sri Lanka" – the pet project of UNP and the World Bank.

After years of communalism and war, the working class of Sri Lanka is once again facing class issues to battle with. The privatisation plans of the government are galvanising the class into action. Already, the transport workers have started a strike for a promised Rs. 2, 500 rise. The government promised this rise in the recent budget to all the workers across the board but only gave it to the state sector workers who constitute just 5% of the total. Even the hospital workers who belong to the state sector did not get this wage rise. The 93,000 hospital workers are also planning to go on strike in the very near future.

A series of strikes is on the cards in various sectors of the economy. The sleeping giant of Sri Lanka – the tea plantation workers – is also seething with anger for all the neglect and deceit that they have faced for decades. Once the rest of the class moves into action they will be bound to join the fire-works.

Chandrika’s government is a bundle of contradictions; with partners such as the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (once upon a time a Trotskyist party), and the communal Janata Vimukti Perumuna (JVP) (which mouths Maoist left rhetoric); the UPFA has lost all its shine since coming to power. Chandrika is amassing to herself authoritarian powers, such as those of the recently re-imposed state of emergency, which include being able to appoint any citizen as a policeman with the right to use fire-arms and powers to arrest! As a big strike wave is anticipated, massive sackings are also a threat that the workers fear from this bankrupt government.

Covert war

As if rubbing salt on the already wounded North and the East of Sri Lanka, the Tsunami of the Indian Ocean has come as a major blow to the war-torn region. Apart from the discrimination faced in terms of relief for tsunami victims, the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) are facing a covert war with the Sri Lankan armed forces. While there has been a ceasefire in place for three years, kidnappings and killings of the leading LTTE forces are on the rise. The recent desertion of Karuna, the erstwhile eastern commander of the LTTE, and the very recent killing of Kausalya (one of the prominent Tamil guerrilla leaders), have put the LTTE on the defensive. They are blaming the Sri Lankan armed forces and the Indian Intelligence for these acts. Before the Tsunami, a war-like situation was returning. There are all the signs that a similar disastrous situation is likely develop in the very near future.

Only a mass campaign against this system of profiteers, which is represented by both the SLFP and UNP, ably propped up by the JVP and the LSSP, can organise the Sinhala, Tamil, and Tamil-speaking Muslims, on a class basis. This daunting but achievable task has been the main goal and activity of the United Socialist Party (CWI-Sri Lanka) since and before the Tsunami struck.

For details of the demands and programme put forward by the United Socialist Party in Sri Lanka since the catastrophe of 26 December, 2004, see the Tsunami page.

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February 2005