Twelve months have passed since the sea claimed 250,000 lives in south Asia and east Africa. Services have been held across the world, including many returning to the coastline where their loved ones were lost. As they look out at the peaceful Indian Ocean (left), it is hard to believe a year has already passed.
DesiPundit points visitors to the The World Wide Help Blog which is observing Disaster Remembrance Week to mark a year when nature’s fury wrought havoc around the world. Famine across Africa, Katrina, the Kashmir Quake and the aftermath of the tsunami led to what became known as ‘donor fatigue’. It is also worth bearing in mind today marks the second anniversary of the Bam quake in Iran, which claimed 30,000 and soon slipped from the world’s news.
Many have suggested that we can show our thanks for being safe in our homes by ending this traumatic year with a donation. I shan’t advise you what to do with your money as there are many good causes out there in need of support. However, a brief mention for Tim Worstall, who is running a smart campaign at his blog. Check it out – NO money is needed, just clicks. Google does the rest.
Over the course of this week, I shall be running a series of tsunami-related articles on my personal blog, most of which fall outside PP’s remit. However I thought I’d start by discussing the role of politics since the great wave.
When I worked in tsunami-hit areas around Sri Lanka’s coastline earlier this year, I quickly learnt the politics of the tsunami. Sri Lanka and Banda Aceh in Indonesia represent the two worst-affected regions of Asia and both have been marred by civil conflict for many years. In the past, lax government efforts in the face of natural disaster have precipitated major turning points in the histories of several countries. For example, when East Pakistan was ravaged by a cyclone in 1970, the appalling response of the Pakistani government contributed significantly to the death of 300,000. Some estimates put it as high as 500,000. Either way, the chapter galvanised East Pakistani politics and brought Independence for Bangladesh soon after.
Despite the Ayn Rand foundation issuing a statement directly after the tsunami suggesting the “US Should Not Help Tsunami Victims”, America thankfully embraced the tsunami as an opportunity to reach out to the most populous Muslim country in the world and build close ties with Jakarta.
Most of the world had not heard of Banda Aceh before the Sumatran region bore the full brunt of the huge earthquake’s wake. Gerakan Aceh Merdeka (the Aceh Freedom Movement) had been fighting for independence from Indonesia for some time and Aceh was home to dangerous armed militia alongside religious fundamentalists. Many predicted the story of East Pakistan may be repeated – if Aceh separatists considered the government’s response even slightly below par, they would step up their freedom fight. A friend flew out to Aceh with the WHO straight after the tsunami and called me. I was told how disorganised the relief effort was, massive areas were completely untouched by the military or foreign aid. I feared the worst.
I was proved wrong and in fact a peace agreement was later signed.
It is interesting to recall how Indonesia won its own independence from the Dutch as it echoes that of Bangladesh. The fight gathered steam after Krakatoa
erupted exploded in 1883. But post-tsunami, the credit must first go to the freedom fighters as they almost unanimously laid down their arms. The destruction had simply been too great. Both sides acknowledged that nothing short of complete cooperation would allow effective rebuilding of millions of square miles that had been flattened. GAM have handed in a large amount of their arms and the government has also felt able to withdraw many of its troops from Aceh.
Most of you are probably more familiar with the troubles that had dogged Sri Lanka for decades. However it is incorrect to think of Sri Lanka as a land simply divided into Tamil and Sinhala communities. A sizeable minority (about 7%) are Muslim and think of themselves as quite separate to both the Sinhala and Tamil groups, I learnt. Kalmunai was ground zero, where about 15,000 perished. It’s a predominantly Muslim fishing town and during my time there I met only two other foreign charities working in the area. When I went to Galle and Matara, both Sinhala areas, I could not move for Westerners. The Muslims in the east and the Tamils in the north/north east felt forgotten.
Whilst entirely anecdotal, the difference was stark. Friends who worked in LTTE-administered areas reported a similar dearth of foreigners, but wondered whether this was government-dictated or a result of the overzealous Tamil border guards who seemed reluctant to let anyone in. I know of several aid convoys that were stopped by Tamil soldiers, only for them to confiscate the supplies and turn the trucks around. Whether the soldiers distributed the aid is speculation, but it was apparent that suspicion was rife.
These stories were somewhat indicative of what happened in Sri Lanka following the tsunami.
The Supreme Court in Sri Lanka issued a verdict that as the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) were not state-recognised or authorised, they could play no part in rebuilding. Thus Tamil areas were left to the Tigers and NGOs, which, as you have already heard, were thin on the ground. Tamil associates were quick to sing the praises of the ultra-efficient Tigers, but in reality the aid distribution has been very lop-sided. Tamils who held the view that the Sinhala majority don’t care for them have only had the impression strengthened.
However, voluntary groups from Sri Lanka have been instrumental in picking up where the government failed. The huge pandemics predicted never materialised due to the unstoppable efforts of Sri Lankan healthcare workers. Volunteers worked all over the island and none that I met cared whether they were treating or building a home for a Tamil or Sinhala family.
Little changed further down the line. The ceasefire held. However the recent election of hardliner Mahinda Rajapakse surprised some – but he provided a second surprise when he offered peace talks with the Tamil Tigers. Perhaps the cloud does have a silver lining after all.
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Filed in: Current affairs,Party politics,South Asia,Sri Lanka,The World