Sri Lanka: Three months after the tsunami, government inaction fuels the flame of protest

The tsunami and its terrible aftermath is the overarching issue that still dominates every aspect of Sri Lankan society.

Peter Taaffe, General Secretary of the Socialist Party (England and Wales) and member of the CWI International Secretariat, recently returned to London from Sri Lanka. He visited some of the areas most devastated by the tsunami and spoke to many whose agony has turned to anger. Pictures

Three months after the tsunami, government inaction fuels the flame of protest

When you visit the devastated tsunami areas, it is not difficult to see why. Speaking to the victims, in the East of Sri Lanka, as well as on the South coast in the Galle area, the despair mixed with anger at the inaction from the different authorities to their plight is palpable.

Three months after the tragic events of 26 December, very, very little has been done to alleviate the plight of the tsunami people. A natural disaster has been turned into a man-made one of even bigger proportions.

Visit to the East

At Pottuvil, at the tip of the East of Sri Lanka – populated by Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese – and I am overwhelmed by the individual accounts of what happened on the 26th.

One young man, a fervent supporter of the United Socialist Party (USP), tells us, almost calmly, that four members of his family were killed on that fateful day. His house is gone; he recognises, however, that the USP does not have the material resources to immediately help him but has something far more important: a programme and a will to struggle on behalf of all the abandoned and neglected tsunami people. He expresses the growing anger at the ineptitude, mismanagement and outright corruption of many of the agencies and of the Sri Lankan government in not immediately rushing aid to the victims of the wave. He is so desperate, that he still approaches me privately to see whether I could “help him” to rebuild his house and his family’s life. And who can blame him, when confronted with the terrible reality of what is taking place in this region and throughout the tsunami affected areas?

These people feel that they have been stranded by the tsunami and abandoned by “their” government and the major political parties. Some of the Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs) have at least done something, although this has barely made a scratch on the scale of the problem. Houses have been obliterated, a few remnants of walls remain, tents are pitched amongst the debris and rubbish left in the wake of the great wave is still there. The ‘fortunate’ few are living in ‘temporary’ accommodation – one-room wooden boxes with wafer-thin roofs – while many are arbitrarily removed kilometres from the sites of their original houses. The majority don’t even have this protection from the elements, forced to live in tents. It rained heavily on a number of days I was in Sri Lanka and when this happens the tents are soaked, provide no shelter. Their occupants are forced to flee to more solid shelter in temples and the remaining intact buildings.

‘Help’ from Big Brothers

In Pottuvil, the Indian Army had come in and rebuilt a bridge partially destroyed on 26 December. Everybody knows this because a huge sign over the bridge proclaims the achievements of the “Indian Army” and its everlasting friendship with the Sri Lankan people. But why did it require the Indian Army to come here and not thousands of engineers, architects, builders and others to recreate destroyed dwellings? Was this the opportunity for the ‘Big Brother’ to the North and the capitalist powers in the region as a whole to build a ‘strategic’ and military bridgehead in Sri Lanka? The people of this area certainly think that is the case.

The same applies to the United States military, who also intervened. Their primary concern, it is clear, was not to help the victims, who still remain stranded, some of them literally so, like the fishermen, on the seashore. One fisherman calmly explained to us that he has lost ten members of his family in the tragedy, his house has gone, as has his boat, which was his only means of livelihood. He hands us a photo of him standing next to his destroyed vessel. I am numbed by the thought of his pain but he still manages to smile at us!

People around the world rallied in an unprecedented demonstration of human solidarity to help their brothers and sisters in Sri Lanka and elsewhere with more than 300 million from workers, pensioners and young people in Britain alone. The government and public relief aid was pushed up to reach a figure of over $5 billion. And yet, from the evidence of our own eyes, not even a trickle of this money has reached the victims.

Chandrika Kumaratunga, President of Sri Lanka, recently declared that the government had so far “not received even five cents”. Where is the money then? It is buried in the vaults of foreign governments and of some international agencies and charities, it seems. Forty per cent of all money collected by charities, in disasters like this, is swallowed up by ‘administration’, which is code for the fat salaries for those who head these organisations. On the evidence of what I have witnessed, it is a lot higher proportionately than even this figure. But this is not their money! Donations have been given generously so that help would speedily arrive to these people. They are already traumatised by personal and family tragedies, but their agony is now being compounded by the outright complacency of the ‘authorities’.

On the evidence here, it will take years, perhaps a minimum of ten, before the problems are fully addressed. How often before has the conscience of the world been touched by a disaster, only then to be forgotten as ‘disaster fatigue’ sets in? This must not be allowed to happen in this case, which touched the whole of the world in a way that no other previous disaster has. There is still a determination to help the tsunami victims. But, left to capitalist governments and organisations, this plea will go unheeded.

Visit to the South

This is underlined by another visit we make to the coast just south of Colombo going towards Galle in the ‘deep south’. The scenes of devastation along this coastline stretch from the sea for hundreds of metres, sometimes up to a kilometre inland, and is something which even my generation has not experienced first hand. It conjures up images of war disasters, when cities were razed to the ground or of the television pictures of Grozny, or even the destruction of Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Where houses stood there are just foundations, practically every building has been destroyed with just shells remaining, illuminating the colossal power of the tsunami.

We stop at a spot near Galle where the remnants of the Colombo to Galle express was lifted by the great wave and thrown hundreds of metres inland. A few wagons have been put back on the lines – the track has been rapidly rebuilt – and is a source of curiosity for visitors who have been ferried to the site in buses. Important as this is to remind people of the tragedy which has transpired, the views of those ‘living’ around the train are more important. Their plight is both tragic and shocking as an example of the continuing complacency towards those lives which have already been shattered.

Most visitors don’t engage these unfortunate people but we speak to a woman sitting outside her new ‘home’, a shack, albeit of new wood. She speaks very quietly and says her name is KPW Rani, aged 49. Before the 26 December, there were six members of her family: herself, her husband and four children – three sons and one daughter. Three of her children were killed on the day of the tsunami: her only daughter and two sons. We asked her if she had any photographs of her children and she said at first, rather quietly, that the “authorities had asked the victims not to show photographs of those killed in the tsunami”. She gingerly produces an envelope and shows us the photographs of her dead children, two handsome young men and a beautiful young woman of 17.


The government has given a grant of 5,000 Rupees (£25) to the head of every household whose home has been destroyed by the tsunami. In addition to this, R2,500 (roughly £13) has been supplied to purchase kitchen utensils. The tsunami victims receive R375 (just over £2) a week for the three people in this household. It is made up of R200 in cash and R175 in goods. She complains that she sometimes has to queue for six hours for the weekly rations and then the rice that they are able to buy with such little money is inedible. They are also confronted with big rises in the cost of living.

An old man joins us, Agossingno aged 85, whose wife was killed and is virtually sleeping out in the open. Another woman, M.Dulari just over the ‘road’, from a wooden hut joins the discussion. She had a shop which was blown away in the tsunami and has no means of livelihood, but there are no proposals of any means of compensation from the government. There are “lots of injustices here”, she says pointing to the banner of a building contractor which dangles from a coconut tree and she complains bitterly that the contractors have “not done a good job”. The tsunami did not take members of her family but she was swept one kilometre inland by the wave. We were joined by her son who complains bitterly that the water supply on the ‘camp’ is not kept clean. His wife says that loudspeaker vans asked them to go to the banks to receive compensation but when they got there they were refused any help by the banks. There is a real danger of illness and epidemic in areas like this because of the dead bodies which still remain in the undergrowth as a result of the tsunami.

Mahinda, from the USP, who has played a key role in the launch and success of the “Voice of the Tsunami People” – the newspaper and the movement developing in the South, asked the young man if they have taken any collective action or if a committee exists to represent them and air their grievances. He says no, but he would be prepared to organise structures like this, such is the anger now felt by the tsunami people.

Devagoda meeting

This is again expressed very forcefully at our next stop, just up the coast in the village of Devagoda, in the region of Ambalangoda. This is a village of 56 families. The organiser of the meeting and a key person in the village, is the ex-head of the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP), the party of President Chandrika, in the area. He has now left this party to join the USP. One of the reasons for this decision is the inaction of the government and the preparedness of the USP, through the ‘Voice of the Tsunami People’ to mobilise people to achieve their rights. Following this meeting, he was visited by three SLFP thugs who beat him so badly he was hospitalised for three days. They told him they did it because he was campaigning against the SLFP with the tsunami people.

The meeting place was charmingly situated under a constructed awning with initially 15-20 people gathered. But as the meeting progressed it filled out with over 100 there at the end. The villagers complain loudly that R5,000 had been promised to all those affected by the tsunami yet they have not received it and face discrimination. Why now are some people inexplicably receiving a grant and others, like them, not? Out of 56 families, 25 have not received any money whatsoever. The main income of the village is through a cottage industry involving the ‘hairs’ of coconuts that are turned into rope, which in turn are manufactured into mats etc.

On the night following the tsunami, 15,000 people were crammed into the local temple, their houses had been damaged and yet the government refuses to compensate them. With the help of the USP, the villagers have organised picket lines and are now prepared to take further action in April. The ‘Voice of the Tsunami People’ will be organising demonstrations throughout the affected areas with a mass march on Colombo later if the government does not act.

Release the funds!

The working people of all countries, who have donated so generously to the tsunami appeal, and in particular labour movement activists across the globe, must support those who are trying to change this shameful situation. The Sri Lankan authorities should be bombarded with complaints and pressure put on them to release the funds to help the victims. Foreign governments are quite clearly holding back resources as a means of pressurising the Sri Lankan government to carry through brutal neo-liberal policies, involving privatisation, which ultimately will compound the problems of the Sri Lankan people.

The labour movement internationally should also be prepared to step up help for their brothers and sisters still affected by the tsunami. It costs £1,000 to replace a fisherman’s boat and there are 1,000 fishermen in the Ampara district, involving the area of Pottuvil, who have been affected. The transport and maritime unions for instance could a long way to help these victims with funds.

But why aren’t the resources of the Sri Lankan state and society poured into emergency measures and put at the disposal of the people of these regions? They are not begging but demanding that, if necessary, they will rebuild their own houses so long as the government supplies the bricks, the mortar and other resources to do this. What about the 20 per cent of Sri Lankans unemployed, who could be mobilised in a massive reconstruction programme? This does not take account of the colossal fund of goodwill internationally which exists to help the people in these regions. Young people, workers and others have volunteered and will continue to do so in order to help the Sri Lankan people.

But rotten capitalism, with its endemic corruption, mismanagement and waste of resources, will not rescue the tsunami people. Only organisations like the USP, the ‘Voice of the Tsunami People’, the Sri Lankan working class and its organisations can begin to mobilise the victims of this natural disaster to change the situation by mobilising the power of the working class and poor people to force the government to act and free the funds already collected. These organisations deserve the widest support from the British and international labour movement.

An article dealing in some depth with perspectives for the Sri Lankan economy and society will be ready for publication in the next week or so.

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April 2005