Guest Writings

The Tsunami Scorecard by Satya Sagar


When I was much younger and more prone to fantasy I imagined the perfect solution to end all the wars and conflicts on dear Planet Earth. Invaded by strange aliens from outer space people, across barriers of every kind, would rally together and respond as one to ward off this truly ‘mother of all enemies’.

This theme of extreme calamity bringing diverse and even rival communities together came to my mind again recently when the Asian tsunami ravaged the coastlines of a dozen countries across two continents.

Here at last was that faceless, odourless, colourless monster of all monsters, I thought, to frighten us all into setting aside imagined and real differences, working hand in hand, shoulder to shoulder to meet the challenge.

Located so close to the event as I was in Chennai, on the southern Indian coast, even the horrendous US war on Iraq seemed a distant event in the first few days after the disaster. So did every other man-made catastrophe, for what the Sumatran quake and tsunami had shown clearly was the sheer helplessness of human beings in the face of nature’s phenomenal wrath.

After all when a routine geological disturbance releases energy equivalent to a hundred thousand Hiroshima bombs and slaughters a couple of hundred thousand people what chance do mere mortals like Bush or Bin Laden stand in their quest to become the globe’s number one villain. The Asian tsunami disaster could have been an opportunity for the planet’s elites to reflect upon the sheer futility of competing with the much larger forces of destruction the cosmos contains.

A Donald Rumsfeld could have stopped squinting so much, meditated a few minutes calmly and said “ Stop the bombing, pull out the troops. It doesn’t mean anything anymore”. An Al Zarqawi could have said “Release those hostages, stop that suicide bomber- there must be a better way of going about all this”. Bush Jr. could have thrown away that Karl Rove prompter stuck to his back, liberated himself forever and gone back to smoking pot- a born-again bohemian.

Alas I realize now that disaster, however great its magnitude, does not produce such simple, human reactions among those in power anywhere. Tragedy, no matter how traumatic for millions, contributes little on its own to the transformation of the hard realities that make up the social, political or economic order of our world.

True, the tsunami prompted an overwhelming response of solidarity and sympathy for the disaster’s hapless victims from not just ordinary people but also celebrities, corporations and governments around the world. Even as I write now, more than a month after the event, there is money, material aid and manpower pouring in from different parts of the world to the tsunami-struck coastal regions of south and south-east Asia.

And yet, within each one of the affected countries governments, national elites and bureaucrats – after a brief and ritual suppression of baser instincts- are headed back towards ‘politics as usual’. Internationally too, some countries like the US, Australia, Japan and India are cynically using the tsunami disaster as an ‘opportunity’ to further their geopolitical ambitions in the affected region.

The worst of the lot of course is the Indonesian government whose response to the disaster in the province of Aceh, where an estimated 150,000 people died, has been simply atrocious. The genuine logistical problems of reaching relief to a million or more affected people, many in remote villages, has been compounded from the start by an inept and corrupt bureaucracy suspicious of all NGOs and foreign humanitarian agencies

As if this were not bad enough the Indonesian state has continued its brutal ‘security operations’ against Acehnese rebels, fighting for greater autonomy or nationhood, even after such a catastrophe. The Indonesian army, since December 26 has managed to kill 120 ‘suspected’ separatists, many of who survived the tsunami because they were hiding in the jungles on higher ground but lost entire families in the disaster. There is something so indescribably wrong about government forces attacking a ragtag band of deeply traumatised and mourning ‘enemy’ that it can only be dubbed evil.

The Jakarta regime has in fact displayed callousness towards the Acehnese capable only by an occupying power. Like with many other post-colonial nations facing separatist movements the attitude of those in power towards its rebellious citizens seems to be ‘we hate you and will make life hell for you, but we won’t allow you to run away from us either’. It is quite obvious that even the tsunami’s great physical forces have not made the tiniest dent on the stone hearts of the Indonesian elites.

In Sri Lanka, another tsunami-hit country with a long running separatist rebellion, attitudes have been no better. In the aftermath of the disaster that devastated communities across religious and linguistic divisions, hopes were raised that at least now Sinhalese politicians and Tamil separatist leaders would start afresh and take the country’s faltering peace process forward.

No such luck. Right from day one the chauvinist Chandrika Bandaranaike regime in Colombo tried to use access to aid and relief as a means of settling scores with the Tamil rebels while the latter used the disaster to tighten their control over the hapless Tamil population. The world always knew Sri Lanka was a small country but the blind and narrow nationalism of both the Sinhala and Tamil leadership is fast taking it towards zero vision as well as visibility.

Mercifully, the parts of India struck by tsunami, the coastal regions of southern India and the Andaman and Nicobar islands, did not have any ongoing separatist movements. Perhaps unhappy with this situation, the Indian state is trying its best to foster a rebellion in all these places by playing around with the lives of those affected by the tsunami.

This is particularly so in the Andaman and Nicobar islands where the Indian government has barred even Indian NGOs and humanitarian agencies from entering and the entire relief and rehabilitation operations are being carried out by the Indian army along with state officials. Indian media reports say that the distribution of relief is marred by corruption, inefficiency and waste.

To give just one appalling statistic, there are just 45 doctors assigned to attend to the 41,000 people in the island’s 176 relief camps while for some strange reason there are no less than 200 police detectives spying on camp inmates (making sure nobody plots his way to good health I suppose).

In Thailand the Thaksin Shinawatra government predictably focused all its energies primarily on ensuring the tsunami does not affect the country’s lucrative tourism industry. Sure, a few thousand foreign tourists died because Thai weathermen were too shy to put out a tsunami warning and ‘scare tourists away’- but hey look- the sun is out, the beach is back to golden and the sea sparkling blue again! And in case that is not enough Thai Airways is offering all those great discounts- two tsunamis for the price of one (or something like that).

The most shameful part of the Thai response has been the way authorities have treated Burmese migrants, over a 1000 of who are believed to have died when the tsunami hit southern Thailand. Human rights and Burmese democracy activists report how Thai police arrested and deported migrants who came looking for dead or missing relatives and friends in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. There are obviously some Buddhists out there who are still completely clueless about the idea of compassion.

Thailand is also the site of a most intriguing politics being played out over the identification of bodies of foreigners and locals who died due to the tsunami. While in the initial hours after the tsunami struck Thai officials and volunteers disposed off all bodies they found in one lot, they were forced, on the insistence of Western governments, to identify each body properly through DNA tests for return to the countries the victims originated from.

While this special attention being given to the bodies of foreigners has been criticised by sections of the Thai media as ‘discriminatory’ the fact of the matter is that the Thai government, like most Asian regimes, cares little for its own dead. Not surprising at all since they care little for them when they are still alive and breathing too.

As operations move from relief to rehabilitation in the region there are other problems cropping up, chief among them being an absolute lack of consultation with affected populations about their own future. Given the deeply entrenched feudal, authoritarian attitudes of the state machinery and the national elites towards their citizens this was to be expected of course and yet one thought foolishly that the tsunami might have jolted such jaded attitudes somewhat. No such luck, again.

In all the four tsunami-struck countries discussed above reports are coming in of state officials ‘deciding’ relocation, livelihood options and even levels of compensation on behalf of the affected populations. And so disjointed are these grand rehabilitation plans from ground realities and the people’s own expectations that all around there are reports of growing protests against such official paternalism.

On the international front, the US regime of George Bush Jr. has tried to use this tragedy to send in its troops, in the guise of humanitarian work, into areas it would otherwise not be allowed into. From Indonesia to Thailand and Sri Lanka US marines are carrying out much needed relief work but their efforts are unfortunately part of a cynical calculation by the Pentagon top brass to venture into new territories for all kinds of strategic reasons.

The US is of course not alone in such manipulation with the Japanese, the Australians and the Indians also sending their armed forces in the name of relief work throughout the tsunami-hit region to further their geopolitical ambitions. Japan sent its so-called ‘self-defence’ forces to Aceh, the first visit by the Japanese army in over half a century to a land they brutalised so badly during the last World War.

The Indian government’s dispatch of its navy to Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand has been lauded by the Indian media as a gesture of regional solidarity and an allegedly potent sign of India’s growing global status. Presiding over a nation with the largest number of the poorest people in the world, Indian elites laughably pride themselves as being a ‘regional power’ somewhat akin to a bunch of crows pretending to be a flock of peacocks.

Talking about birds, even as different as crows and peacocks, I suddenly get an idea that some of them could definitely make good candidates for the posts of Prime Minister or President in many of our countries. After all if the absence of humanity has become the key characteristic of those in power then why reserve these posts for human beings? What is wrong with a good old balding vulture? Imagine! We can dispense with Air Force One without ruffling any feathers!

Think deeply about it, well before the next bloody election comes around again.

Satya Sagar is a journalist, writer, video maker based in Thailand. He can be reached at

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