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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 69/No. 2January 18, 2005

lead article
Social catastrophe unfolds
in South Asia after tsunami
Imperialist domination, local capitalist regimes magnify toll
Getty Images/Prakash Singh
People leave devastated village of Karmavadi, in Tamil Nadu, India, three days after tsunami struck. Official death toll in India from tsunami stands at 11,000; it tops 150,000 throughout the region. Thousands are still missing in India’s remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands, which were closer to the epicenter of the quake that set off the waves.

Ten days after an undersea earthquake sent a series of huge waves across the Indian Ocean December 26, the United Nations reported that the official death toll in the region’s coastal communities had surpassed 150,000. Tens of thousands more are still missing, most of whom are presumed dead. Over half a million are seriously injured, and five million survivors throughout the region have been left homeless.

“The death toll will grow exponentially on the western coast of Sumatra,” Jan Egeland, the supervisor of the United Nations relief effort, told the press January 4. Egeland was referring to the Indonesian island close to the epicenter of the massive earthquake, which registered 9.0 on the Richter scale and set the huge waves in motion. “We may be talking about tens of thousands [more],” Egeland said. “At this stage, it is beyond comprehension.”

As of January 5, the official toll in Indonesia stood at about 100,000. In Sri Lanka, the second-worst affected, the figure topped 30,000. India’s official toll stood at 11,000, although another 20,000 people may have died on the remote Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar from which there is no accurate count yet. The confirmed deaths in Thailand stand at just over 5,000. Hundreds more died in Somalia, Myanmar, Maldives, and Malaysia.

“The underlying story of this tragedy is the overpowering, amoral mechanics of the earth’s surface,” the New York Times editorialized the day after the disaster struck. “They demonstrate, geologically speaking, how ephemeral our presence is.”

Geology indisputably played a role. The staggering loss of life produced by the tsunami’s wrath, though, was largely due to the absence of any warning system—including in places such as India where the waves struck the shores four hours after the quake. Resources on hand—from communications, to roads, transportation, electrical grids, medical care, and food supplies—have also been scarce to respond to the disaster in its immediate aftermath. These are the products of the plunder of the region’s resources and labor over decades by the wealthy imperialist states—whose governments are now tripping over each other to paint themselves as generous benefactors—aided and abetted by the local capitalist regimes.

A week after the disaster, much of the media coverage had shifted to the millions of dollars in aid that has been pledged for recovery from the catastrophe. But a wide disparity exists between the amount of help that has been promised and what is actually given, and of that, what is turned over to the UN aid agency and what ends up in the hands of those who are in dire need. Aid is channeled through UN officials—whose recent record of thievery over the Iraqi “oil for food” program speaks volumes of what one may expect this time—and the imperialist governments and bureaucracies they represent. It then goes into the hands of the local capitalist regimes, before any of it reaches the intended destination.  
No early-warning system
“The waves are totally predictable,” Dr. Tad Murty, an expert on the region’s tsunamis affiliated with the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, told the New York Times. “We have travel-time charts covering all of the Indian Ocean. From where this earthquake happened to hit, the travel time for waves to hit the tip of India was four hours. That’s enough time for a warning.”

Stations that gauge wave and earthquake activity across the Pacific Ocean are capable of alerting potential targets of the giant waves in minutes. In fact, the scientists monitoring earthquake activity in the Pacific predicted within 15 minutes of the December 26 earthquake in the Indian Ocean that a substantial risk of a tsunami existed. Since no such early warning system exists in the Indian Ocean countries, there was no network in place to warn those who were potentially at risk. Thousands of lives could have been saved had such a system been established, especially in mainland India, Sri Lanka, and Thailand, which were hit by the waves more than an hour after the quake shook the ocean.

Governments along the shores of the Indian Ocean are now calling for such a system to be put in place. Its effectiveness, however, depends on the level of development of the countries included in the network.

Even with such a network in the Pacific, for example, 2,000 people were killed when a tsunami struck the Pacific Islands of Papua New Guinea in 1998. Without substantial modern infrastructure, nations in the semicolonial world have far less of a chance of getting an adequate warning to their population than the industrially developed Pacific-rim nations of Japan and the United States.

In Indonesia, the World Bank reports, 47 percent of households are not connected to the electricity grid and 6,000 villages lack electrification altogether. In Sri Lanka, according to the 1998 UN Human Development report, 56 percent of the population in 1994 did not have access to electricity. Some 75 percent of the country’s population lives in the countryside.

Indonesia’s hardest-hit Aceh province on the island of Sumatra, near the epicenter of the massive undersea earthquake, is one of the poorest in the country. The province’s poverty is not due to a lack of resources. Rich in oil and natural gas, Aceh has long been a target of imperialist oil barons like ExxonMobil, which operates a large natural gas plant there. This wealth, though, is siphoned into the accounts of wealthy capitalists and government bureaucrats in Indonesia, the foreign oil monopolies, and imperialist banks and other such financial institutions.

According to the World Bank, in Jakarta, Indonesia’s capital, there are a little over 160 hospital beds per 100,000 inhabitants. In Aceh, the figure is less than 50. Almost half of the children in this province are malnourished. About 22 percent of Indonesia’s population has no access to safe water.

This extreme underdevelopment meant that millions had few tools at their disposal to shield themselves from this disaster or, in its aftermath, to minimize additional loss of life and the spreading of disease and begin the recovery. Most of the southern coast of Indonesia, for example, has not been reached by relief efforts as this issue goes to press.

“From their position off Banda Aceh, the province’s capital, the [USS] Abraham Lincoln’s helicopters can fly only as far as the leveled city of Meulaboh, along Aceh’s west coast,” reported the January 5 New York Times. “The fate of villagers to the south remains unknown.”

“We have a logistical nightmare,” the UN’s Jan Egeland told NBC TV’s Today show. “I would say that tens of thousands of people have received no relief.” Egeland said more trucks, aircraft, base camps, fuel, water treatment plants, and generators are needed.  
Strategic spy base hit
According to the Christian Science Monitor, only one-quarter of residents of Car Nicobar Island, once home to 30,000 people, have survived the tsunami. The waves hit from all sides and penetrated more than four miles onto the island in some places. But the estimated 20,000 dead do not yet appear as part of the overall figure, as the Indian government has kept the islands off-limits to outside assistance.

Car Nicobar is part of the Andaman and Nicobar island chain, an Indian territory that is home to 350,000 people. In addition to a large population of Indian settlers and an indigenous people who live largely in the forests, the islands are also home to Indian military spy bases. This is the rationalization New Delhi has used to bar foreign aid groups from the islands, even though it claims its listening posts have been destroyed too. Little has been made public about the extent of the devastation.

“India has used the islands, located 600 miles from the mainland, as a listening post for east Asia, mainly China, for many years,” said the Monitor.

“When the Chinese set up a signals intelligence facility by leasing an island from Myanmar, to monitor Indian missile tests in the northeast of the country, Indian intelligence came onto the scene with three state-of-the-art ESS, or electronic surveillance stations, provided to them by the Americans, in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands,” Subir Bhaumik, a military analyst, told the Monitor. “The United States gave us the hardware to intercept Chinese intelligence and it was put in place by 2002, but now all three bases in the islands of Kakana, Katchall, and Nancowrie are believed destroyed by the tsunami.”

In Port Blair, the capital of Car Nicobar, starving survivors kidnapped the island’s top civilian official and police chief January 2 to protest the inadequate relief operation, the Guardian reported. After a four-day trek through the jungle, a group of starving Punjabi settlers came upon the two government officials eating plates of fine curried meat, the paper reports.

“The assistant commissioner was eating biryani in his guesthouse,” one witness, Lilly Ommen, told the UK-based daily. “The men arrived and pointed out that they were starving. They also said there were people stuck in the forest with nothing, as well as many dead bodies.”

“I’m very angry,” Suresh, 22, a welder, told the Guardian. “We saw these people eating biryani. But we had nothing but rice soaked in salt water.” The officials were released after promising more aid.

“On the really remote islands, God knows what is happening,” aid worker Hoslo Jiwa, who toured Car Nicobar, told the Guardian. “They have only made aerial surveys and dropped packages.”  
Tourists and fishermen
Press reports and interviews on television news programs have given substantial space to stories about the foreign tourists who were vacationing in Thailand and other areas when the disaster struck.

Thais have complained of the unequal treatment meted out to local residents who were caught in the disaster and the tourists. More than half the population of 5,000 in the Thai fishing village of Baan Nam Khem, for example, was feared to have died in the tsunami.

“Thais have complained that towns like Baan Nam Khem have been ignored, while the international relief effort has focused on foreign tourists,” the BBC reported. “They say that foreigners were put up in an international school with beds and Internet connections, while Thais were left to sleep outside.”

Thailand received large teams from countries whose nationals were caught in the maelstrom in Thailand’s resorts and hotels—a much swifter response than countries that lost tens of thousands more.

“Obviously we have to look after the foreigners,” Thaksin Shinawatra, the country’s prime minister, said in early January. Shinawatra promised that the priority now would shift to the Thai population.  
Imperialist plunder
Behind the facade of generosity and sympathy that imperialist governments and their institutions have built with the aid they’ve promised to victims of this calamity, Washington, Paris, London, Tokyo and other citadels of finance capital continue to plunder the resources of the countries in the region. Indonesia and Sri Lanka, to cite two examples, are both saddled with massive debts to imperialist creditors.

In Indonesia, almost $7.5 billion dollars, or one-quarter of the country’s tax revenue, is slated for payment in the coming year on the interest and principal of the country’s nearly $81 billion foreign debt. This is equal to all of the country’s planned spending on infrastructure projects and many times the amount pledged by wealthy nations in aid for the country’s reconstruction.

In Sri Lanka, the overall foreign debt last year accounted for more than 58 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product—a total of $10.6 billion. It has continued to grow steadily over the past decade, increasing from $8.6 billion in 1995.

German chancellor Gerhard Schröder has proposed that the Paris Club, a banking network of imperialist lenders based in the French capital that holds roughly half of Indonesia’s debt, temporarily suspend collection in face of the tsunami’s destruction.

The governments of the world’s wealthiest nations have pledged aid packages totaling over $2 billion. Washington had initially offered a paltry $15 million in aid and then upped that figure to $350 million after an international outcry.

“The greatest source of America’s generosity is not our government: it’s the good heart of the American people,” U.S. president George Bush said, in announcing a government-backed drive January 3 to collect private contributions that will be headed by his father, ex-president George H. W. Bush, and his predecessor, William Clinton.

But press reports cautioned that the hundreds of millions in government offers are only pledges. The U.S. rulers and their counterparts in Europe and Japan are notorious for making grandiose promises for the cameras and then failing to deliver. Aid to victims of last year’s devastating earthquake in Bam, Iran, for example, fell far short of the amounts pledged, top UN officials reported.

As the U.N. oil-for-food scandal revealed, the money, once in the hands of United Nations administrators, does not often reach its promised destination. Billions in funds generated by sales of Iraqi oil disappeared in a web of relations between various capitalist interests, government representatives, and UN bureaucrats.

What aid actually does reach the affected country has to then go through the web of local capitalist interests and government bureaucracy. A good portion of it never reaches its destination, and is sold on the black market and elsewhere, enriching local capitalist gangs, government officials, and their lieutenants. According to the Washington Post, only one-eighth of the 400,000 tons of food flown into Banda Aceh has been delivered to the victims. The New York Times reported that “complaints have already arisen about soldiers siphoning off supplies for their relatives and friends.” The Indonesian government’s disaster relief coordinator dismissed reports of hungry families in towns leveled by the giant waves. “I can guarantee you there is no starvation, except for me, because I didn’t have lunch today,” he told the press.

At the same time, Jakarta has seized on the opportunity to go after an independence movement that has been waging a struggle against Indonesian rule in Aceh since 1976. According to military spokesman Col. Ahmad Yani Basuki, one-third of the Indonesian military forces committed to the region in the wake of the disaster is conducting operations against the Free Aceh Movement guerrillas rather than aiding the relief effort.  
Contrast with Cuba
The response of Cuba’s revolutionary government to recent natural disasters is a sharp illustration of the potential that exists to minimize the loss of human life during such calamities and in their aftermath when workers and farmers run society and are mobilized to defend the interests of the vast majority rather than the profits of the wealthy few. The Cuban example stands in stark contrast to the chaos, scarcity, and corruption that have characterized the response to the Indian Ocean tsunami by imperialist regimes and the capitalist governments of the affected countries.

When Hurricane Charley swept through Havana in the early morning hours of August 13 last year with winds of up to 160 miles per hour, the population was prepared. A massive mobilization to evacuate thousands and to prepare the city for the superstorm minimized the loss of life. While four people died in Cuba as a result of that storm, 30 people died in nearby Florida later that day despite the superior resources and wealth of the United States.

A month later, Hurricane Ivan hit. In its sweep through the United States, Ivan and the storms it produced killed 50 people. Another 70 died in neighboring Caribbean countries. But in Cuba, no one lost their lives as 1.9 million people were evacuated from the areas in the storm’s immediate path and a mobilization of volunteers helped in the effort to rebuild the more than 20,000 destroyed homes and quickly restore power to affected areas.

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