Asia: Tsunami anniversary commemorated – a year of bungling and corruption brings worsening misery for tsunami people

Worsening misery for tsunami people. A socialist world more necessary than ever

Tsunami anniversary commemorated.

It is one year since the killer tsunami wave swept across the Indian Ocean on December 26, 2004. As the anniversary was approaching, the world’s media carried heart-rending reminders of the tragedy itself and looked at the situation one year on in the countries and communities worst affected. But none of them pointed to how the mass carnage that results from ‘natural’ disasters in poverty-stricken countries can be avoided nor how the chaos and corruption that paralyses relief operations can be prevented.

What did we say on this web-site one year ago and how have things worked out?

A year of bungling and corruption

If you include the more than 50,000 people still ‘missing’, possibly as many as many as 300,000 people were killed on that fateful day. Millions of people were made homeless and most of them left with no means of subsistence. Traumatised children were bereft of parents; parents grieved for lost children. Families and communities were decimated.

The publicity given to the gruesome events themselves was heightened by the presence of in the beach resorts on the rim of the ocean of many western holidaymakers. Latest information puts the number of tourists dead at 2,400 from 36 different countries. Their visual and verbal accounts plus the reports of correspondents in the region exposed to the world the fragile lives and homes of just some of the hundreds of millions in the world who live on less than a dollar a day.

Journalists commented that the value of whole villages in Thailand destroyed by the tsunami were less than the real estate of one luxury hotel in the Indian Ocean resort of Phuket. A family would pay more for a night’s stay in one of them than a Thai fisherman would earn in a year.

The amount of aid given and promised for tsunami victims was amongst the highest after any disaster – adding up to around $13 billion. But, as one commentator wrote at the time, putting it in perspective, Europeans will spend little less then that – $11 billion – on ice-cream in a year! The existence of two worlds – that of the ‘haves’ and that of the ‘have-nots’ – was brought home starkly.

We, as Marxists, went further to explain the anarchy, the cold cruelty and the hypocrisy that is endemic in world capitalism – a system that functions on the basis of the piling up of vast profits by the few through the super-exploitation of the many.

We publicised the telling figure quoted by George Monbiot at the time that the assistance promised by George Bush for the tsunami victims amounted to just one and a half hour’s worth of spending on the war in Iraq! How many more scores of billions have been spent since December 26, 2004 and how many of those few billions eventually promised world-wide in aid have actually reached the people who need it?

We saw this time last year that working people, pensioners and young people around the globe expressed their deep-seated humanity, solidarity and selflessness with offers of practical help as well as generous donations from their meagre resources. This was in stark contrast to the stinginess of governments and big business. But we also warned that, as in the case of previous ‘natural’ disasters, such as earthquakes in Turkey and elsewhere, inefficiency, corruption and outright theft would mean only a small percentage of the total figure for aid reaching those affected by the disaster.

Democratically elected committees to exclude corruption and incompetence

The members of the CWI in Sri Lanka in the United Socialist Party, like those in Pakistan and Kashmir later in the year, following the catastrophic earthquake in October, immediately launched a campaign for all relief and rehabilitation to be kept out of the hands of bureaucrats, soldiers and self-seeking politicians. They demanded control by elected committees of affected people and of workers’ and poor people’s organisations. As the crises grew, they put forward the demand for the governments to resign.

It was clear from day after the tsunami, that ministers and politicians were overcome by inertia and greed. Considerations of how to make political capital out of the situation, how individually and collectively to get their hands on the honey-pot, how to prevent ‘outside’ interference in their military affairs etc. took priority over the needs of millions craving for food and medical attention.

The Indian government rejected foreign aid, partly because of ambitions to appear strong and prosperous enough to cope with the emergency and partly to ensure its military installations in the Andaman and Nicobar islands remained out of reach of snoopers from any foreign power. The Indian government also had its own imperialist aims in the region, particularly in terms of increased economic and military influence in and around its southern neighbour, Sri Lanka.

Paralysis in government circles was accompanied by a flood of hundreds of different charitable NGOs pouring into the massive disaster zone. But a recent report has indicated to whom these NGOs have been most charitable:- their own administrators and staff rather than the victims of the disaster! In some cases, not least of organisations like WHO and the World Food Programme affiliated to the UN itself, up to 32% of money for relief has gone on administration. Consultancy fees of $10,000 and expenditure on fleets of cars etc. has distorted local economies. To add insult to injury, huge hoardings advertise the names of the charities and companies who have supplied the temporary hovels or shining new motor boats. Petrol-guzzling 4x4s have been sent to areas with little petrol or diesel available, bikes to areas without roads and so many boats to some areas that the World Fish Centre in Malaysia now warns of a disaster of over-fishing in the waters that provide a living for so many! On the other hand, Nicobarese fishermen who use out-rigger canoes were given motorised boats that they could not handle.

Nothing brings home more the need for decision-making to rest with locally elected committees who can link up on a national scale and for new governments in the region, made up of the people who understand what is needed – working and poor people.

Criminal neglect of housing needs

Reports from Aceh, Indonesia, from the Andaman islands and from Sri Lanka show a criminal lack of provision of decent, permanent housing. It is estimated that in Aceh, where half a million homes were ruined and just 10% of homes have been rebuilt so far, the house rebuilding programme will take no less than 10 years. In Sri Lanka, where, according to the Auditor-General’s report, after nine months just 13.5% of aid had been spent (“because of the absence of any scheme for the utilisation of funds”), a mere 1,055 houses had been rebuilt – 2% of the total of 48,974 due to be completed by 4 August, 2005! But, as the English radio and newspaper journalist, Andrew Gilligan pointed out in the Evening Standard on 28 November, in the constituency of the newly elected president, Hambantota, more houses had been rebuilt than were destroyed – “350 more than the town actually needs”! New houses for cronies and key vote-getters by any chance? (The same report shows that 700 containers of relief supplies were simply abandoned at Colombo port after the donors lost hope of clearing them through government-controlled customs formalities.

During the election campaign, Rajapakse, who was the country’s prime minister at the time, managed to get a court case against him postponed in which he was due to answer charges of fraud – the siphoning off into a bank account run by him called “Helping Hambantota” of 83 million rupees in aid money!

What does the future hold for the tsunami-affected people of Sri Lanka under his presidency? At one election rally for this man, where 6,000 lunches were laid on for potential voters, the accompanying bottles of water were found to be from Malaysia in crates labeled ‘tsunami aid’!

The record of governments on re-housing those made homeless by the tsunami must be the worst aspect of the disaster one year on, just as it is already in the earthquake disaster in the North of the sub-continent. In Pakistan and Kashmir people who want to rebuild their own homes are being stopped and condemned to live under light canvas or plastic in freezing temperatures.

By contrast, in the Indian-ruled Andaman and Nicobar islands Rashid Yusuf of the Nicobarese Tribal Association complains: “We wanted to build our own homes – the traditional wood and bamboo structures on stilts in which we have lived for centuries. We just asked for tool kits and access to timber from fallen trees.” But the government forced on his community thousands of tin and metal prefabs. A locally based NGO worker described them as being, “Like blast furnaces in the hot and sultry climate!…The tribespeople will have to keep their pigs in them and sleep in the jungle at night if their permanent houses are made of metal”.

In Sri Lanka and in Aceh, tsunami afflicted fishermen and others who scrape a living on the coastline, have been enraged by the attempts of the government to ban re-building within 100 or 200 metres of the sea. In both countries they have forced a government retreat on this issue. Anger reached boiling point in Sri Lanka when it became obvious that widespread exemptions were being made for rich people’s houses and for those who would make big profits from building marinas and luxury hotels on the beaches.

The United Socialist Party (CWI, Sri Lanka) has been in the forefront of the tsunami people’s movement in the South and the East of the island and their campaign for justice. As well as the significant victory on the ‘buffer zone’ achieved through mass protests another victory was won over the payment of compensation to survivors and families of those killed.

Nevertheless, still a year on, most of those made homeless are living in conditions that are literally life-threatening. (See box) Homeless and jobless families were left without the miserly 5,000 rupees a month for as much as half a year. Suddenly, before the recent presidential election, various communities who could perhaps be ‘persuaded’ to vote for the government’s candidate, got pay-outs!

No wonder many in the tsunami-affected areas have no faith in the politicians of the parties who have failed them and their families for decades, let alone in the hour of their greatest need. One of the pledges of the United Socialist Party in the election campaign was to fight to the end for justice for the tsunami affected people. They have demanded from the beginning not loans but grants for re-building houses and livelihoods. The poor people around the Indian Ocean have had enough of debt and money-lenders.

There is a debate about whether the same kind of houses should be reconstructed after disasters in poverty-stricken areas as people lived in before. Socialists say no expense should be spared re-housing people in buildings that utilise all existing local and international knowledge to ensure minimum damage in the event of any future disasters.

There was a memorable photo still being shown of a flattened Banda Aceh, capital of the Indonesian province worst hit by the quake and ensuing tsunami. It showed the only building left standing to be a mosque. This was undoubtedly due to the resources that went into building it and owed nothing to divine intervention! (Many other less substantial mosques, temples and churches were destroyed throughout the region along with schools, hospitasls and clinics).On the coastlines you can also see some quite solid structures that withstood the force of the sea – hotels or private luxury houses.

If ordinary people need or want to live near to the coast, the risks to life and homes should be minimised. Storm and quake proof houses can be built but at double the cost of more vulnerable constructions. But even if more money is needed, it must be made available. Diane Johnson, an official of Mercy Corps, Asia, estimates that solid brick-built houses can be constructed for the same amount of money that Oxfam is spending on 26 sq. metre “transitional shelters with the appearance of long garden sheds”. No hotels or rich people’s houses should be rebuilt before all the homeless poor have been given a decent home!

The only country where re-building of local people’s homes seems to have proceeded fairly swiftly must be Thailand although some serious conflicts had arisen with property developers throwing people off the site of their family homes. More money was available here than in other countries and making the area presentable for the return of the tourists was an urgent concern. The rebuilding of hotels seems to have been accompanied by reconstruction projects for local people without the myriad of land disputes and government obstruction afflicting other affected areas. (It is another question as to how the surviving Burmese and other immigrant workers in the area have fared. Many of their number will have literally sunk without trace on the day of the disaster itself.)

Warning systems

Few at the time of the 25 December disaster considered the death toll to be man-made. Some, even today, blame supernatural powers and most think little could have been done to save the lives of those caught up in the wave. But we maintained last year on this site that a fully equipped and maintained early warning system like that in the Pacific Ocean and more developed local emergency procedures would have saved all but a few of the hundreds of thousands of lives lost.

We roundly condemned the attitude of US imperialism and other powers in the Asia region for not having installed such a system. We, like some of the scientists at the time, believed this was mainly because in the Pacific there are large numbers of US troops and bigger US economic and strategic interests than in the Indian Ocean. Post tsunami and in view of the rising economic, military and political power of China, this is changing to some extent. As we also pointed out at the time, for the sake of the cost of Bush’s second inaugural banquet at the end of last year – $50 million – such a system could have been in place.

We also explained, as the USP members in Sri Lanka pointed out, that an emergency system in Japan cuts off the electricity supply to transport when the first hint of an earthquake becomes known. The fated ‘Queen of the Sea’ passenger train should never have left the station in Ambalangoda where it picked up passengers who were seeking refuge after the first giant wave had hit the coast. It was then lifted by the force of the sea, which buckled the track and dashed the the crumpled train to the ground more than 100 yards away. 2,000 people people were killed in that train– the biggest rail disaster in history.

None of these people would have died with a proper emergency system and a government that heeded the news it was receiving. The government knew of the quake that had set off the tsunami and failed to take action. There would be even less excuse for inaction if a fully effective early warning system was in place in the Indian Ocean like that in the Pacific.

Is there one today? No. And, according to reports, not likely to be until the end of 2007, if then. There has been much petty wrangling about who pays, about which measures are necessary and about which country or countries will host the regional alert centres. This in itself could prove to be another tragic demonstration of the chaos and anarchy implicit in having the world divided into rival nation states and of the urgent need for socialist, world-wide fraternity, altruism and cooperation!

A few governments have made separate arrangements. The government of Indonesia has taken a step towards providing an early warning system, at least for its own population in the event of an emergency. A newly installed coastal siren was sounded at the ceremony on 26 December this year in Banda Aceh to commemorate the largest death toll of any country in the disaster area.

The Thai government has also adopted some new warning measures for its own shores. But this comes after it suppressed news of an approaching tsunami last December for an hour for fear of damaging the tourist business! This was the same reason that, ten years earlier, it sacked the head of its Meteorological Department for giving a warning about the possibility of a tsunami which did not materialise!

Smith Dharmasaroja was interviewed for a programme shown recently on BBC TV. He was explaining precisely what happened this time round when the tectonic plates had moved under the sea. Again nobody would take notice of his urgent communications. A massive tsunami was certain to follow this quake. With seismic shocks measuring a colossal 9 on the Richter scale it was the biggest for 40 years and one which actually shifted the course of the earth’s journey round the sun!

Another expert on this programme, had spent years studying the culture and life-style of the Ongi – a small hunter-gatherer tribe of just 100 people in the Andaman Islands. He was anxious that not one of them would have survived the tsunami. ‘Miraculously’ he found that all had escaped, saved by their habit of reading the signs of nature. They were convinced that the huge retreat of the sea that they witnessed would be followed by what they saw as a massive counter-attack. They, like a few others around the rim of the Indian Ocean, who understood the behaviour of birds, fish and animals before the tsunami, fled to higher ground and survived. Of course their theory was not very modern – based on the idea that the world rests on the branches of a tree which accounts for the somewhat precarious life of the planet! But their observations over centuries paid off.

This TV programme – ‘Seven hours on Boxing Day’ – while generally more scientific and objective than some others shown over the Christmas period, left open the question of why a Christian Church survived untouched by the tsunami that swirled around it on December 25 last year.. A substantially built building, it actually occupied considerably higher ground than the neighbouring territory!

A socialist approach to survival for the people of the globe would entail a world plan of production and distribution.. It would mean public ownership of all resources including land and industry and democratic control by the very people who actually create real wealth in society. Such a society, gearing the development of industry and human endeavour to the needs of the majority and not the profits of the few, could shorten working hours for some and give meaningful jobs to all. Only such a society would devote resources to making available in every part of the world the most modern methods of preventing and, in a crisis, dealing with disasters – medical, environmental and man-made and reducing to a minimum the number of lives lost.

A harmonious world system of socialist cooperation would do away with state and national divisions and war and would rapidly mobilise all available resources to the point of greatest need. Think of the millions of unemployed or under-employed but qualified health workers, doctors and teaches in the world let alone the building workers and the wasted construction materials and wasteful organisation of food production..

‘Conflict resolution’

The cooperation and solidarity shown on a local level between people of different national and racial origins after the tsunami last year raised one other hope in the hearts of millions in the region and beyond – that for the resolution of long-standing national conflicts in Indonesia and Sri Lanka in particular. Similar hopes have been raised by the earthquake in Pakistan and Kashmir.

But, as we pointed out this time last year, under capitalism, a long-term resolution of national conflicts remains impossible. The war-weary and grief-stricken people of Aceh will no doubt have welcomed the decision of the leaders of the national liberation GAM movement to sign a cease-fire. Arms have been handed in and many TNI forces withdrawn from the province where tens of thousands have died in decades of bloody fighting and repression. But the renunciation by GAM of the demand for independence may not be sufficient to assure the Acehnese people freedom from military incursion and from the rape of the resources of the area. Indonesian army tops will be reluctant to forego their inflated personal incomes generated by illegal logging and collusion with foreign oil firms in the area.

In Sri Lanka, the mutual help shown between the majority Sinhalese people and Tamils in the hours following the disaster was quickly subsumed in the Sinhala-dominated government’s inaction and callous discrimination against the needs of the Tamil-speaking people. In the coastal areas of the North and East they are amongst the poorest of the island’s population. An opportunity existed for distributing aid as swiftly and generously as possible to all communities. Instead the Sinhala chauvinist forces of the JVP and JHU blocked even the long-stalled arrangement for distribution of aid known as P-TOMS. (See recent articles on Sri Lanka for more detail).

In the period since the Sri Lankan presidential election in November, a renewal of the 20 year-long war that has seen 70,000 killed and many more exiled is feared by many. Armed clashes are a daily occurrence between the nationalist liberation forces of the LTTE, or ‘Tigers’, of the overwhelmingly Tamil dominated North and the Sri Lankan government forces. Twenty six Sri Lankan navy personnel were killed when their bus was blown up by a land mine on the Jaffna peninsula last week. A Tamil member of parliament has been assassinated. If nothing is done by the government, the situation will deteriorate. The three year-long cease-fire appears more fragile than ever, in spite of the desire for a lasting peace on both sides, including amongst Sri Lanka’s capitalist class. Imperialism on a world scale, especially US imperialism is exerting huge pressure for a settlement, but cannot give the Tamil-speaking people sufficient assurances for their safety and prosperity to prevent a resumption of hostilities.

Hopes for harmonious relations in the predominantly Muslim Tamil-speaking areas of the East of the country are also wearing thin. In one of the worst-hit parts of Sri Lanka’s coastline during the onslaught of the tsunami, – in Ampara District especially  around Pottuvil – the United Socialist Party comrades gained huge respect for the work they did in rescuing people from danger and from desperation. The practical assistance and round-the-clock assemblies of local people that they organised helped them build the forces of the party and support for its policies by leaps and bounds. The politicians of the major parties studiously avoided this troubled area.

The United Socialist Party and the struggle for socialism in the region

Throughout its existence, the United Socialist Party has argued for the honouring of democratic rights in all areas of Sri Lanka. It has fought to defend the rights of Tamil-speaking people and combat Sinhala chauvinism. In the election, island wide, the reputation of the USP as an honest, working class force for socialist change was demonstrated in the more than 35,000 votes it received.

The televised speech by its candidate, Siritunga Jayasuriya, after that of the victor, Mahinda Rajapakse, will have engendered even more support for the USP. He warned of the dire results of communalism and of pro-capitalist policies and pledged that his party would be at the forefront of a mass movement against them.

In this tumultuous year in Sri Lanka, before and during the presidential election campaign, the USP has continued to demand a minimum wage for all to cover the crippling and rising costs of everyday necessities. In the face of rising unemployment, including amongst qualified college graduates, and in the wake of the tsunami, the USP has demanded jobs for all and a mass programme of house, school and hospital building.

Throughout the Indian Ocean region, those who have failed to distribute the aid already given, and who have profiteered from the misery of millions, must be held to account and removed from office forthwith. If the bankers, the bosses, the government and the international finance institutions are not prepared to supply the means for carrying through immediate relief and reconstruction in all the countries affected by the tsunami, then a struggle has to take place for the building of mass workers’ socialist parties which aim to establish workers’ and poor people’s governments that would carry through mass nationalisation with democratic workers’ control and management.

An appeal should still be made internationally for direct post-tsunami assistance with materials, modern technology and skilled man-power for the widespread reconstruction necessary to be carried out under the control of ordinary working class and poor people. Capitalism has failed the workers and poor people of the world. 2006 must see a renewal of the struggle for socialism as the only way of ensuring an enduring and harmonious future for generations to come.

CWI fund-raising greatly helped recovery and fight back of ‘Tsunami People’.

The magnificent response to our appeal by Committee for a Workers’ International members and supporters enabled the United Socialist Party to help carry out important aid and campaigning activities. These included providing basic foodstuffs in the East around Pottuvil and in the South around Galle. They also bought bicycles, sewing machines, pots and pans for affected families to enable them to begin to carry out basic tasks for themselves. Some of the money also assisted in the production of the paper ‘Tsunami People’s Voice’ – produced like the monthly newspaper of the USP – in both Sinhala and Tamil.

In the new school term, the USP and the Janaraja Healthworkers’ Union is aiming to provide school clothing, shoes and satchels to children in the tsunami-affected areas they have been working in when they attend school for the first time this January. (Any further donations are still welcome, as are those to the TURCP Earthquake appeal).

Temporary shelter can damage your health!

On a visit three months ago to tsunami-stricken areas in Sri Lanka, I attended a meeting of 100 or so ‘Tsunami people’ in the town of Galle. At the meeting the USP comrades were urging the assembled families to maintain the mass protests but also to vote for the USP candidate in the presidential election. I spoke on behalf of the CWI and explained a bit about where the money given by our members and supporters had come from and why.

After the meeting the women and young men took us to their tent city alongside the railway track through to Matara. The heat both outside and inside these living spaces – sometimes one tent for eight or ten family members – was unbearable. Inside the tents there was nothing except a ‘bed’ or two and one or two cooking utensils and one or two items of clothing. (The other few underclothes, trousers and dresses were on the ground outside, drying in the sun.) There were children still suffering from nervous diseases and spots and several bearing signs of malnutrition and traumatic stress disorders, with no psychiatric help in sight for them or their parents.

A survey of temporary shelter reported in the Sri Lankan Daily Mirror on September 30 confirmed that: “Poor health conditions were rampant in all temporary housing sites…including heat-related boils and skin rashes, chicken pox, respiratory disorders, fever and insect bites…Food water and sanitation for the affected people had been severely compromised”.

A visit to relatives of a USP party member near Matara confirmed that temporary shelter damages your health. Nothing had been left of the village they once lived in except the concrete foundations of their homes. People had built box-like constructions on part of the foundations with miserably warped ply-wood generously supplied by some Italian or French charity (with their name stamped loudly on it!).

Inside the hut the beams supporting the ply-wood were crumbling and producing a fine sawdust that layered the table and the wooden slats put together for a bed. On the day of the disaster, the woman of the family had taken a direct hit in the stomach from a huge beam of wood swirling in the water beside her as she and it were thrown hundreds of yards inland by the giant wave. This had left her with permanent damage to her internal organs. Now, because of the dust, she was suffering severe breathing difficulties and felt the day was imminent when her breath would totally fail her.

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December 2005