Exploiting tragedy: how tsunami relief aid is used in economic and military power plays

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Last December’s devastating tsunami in the Indian Ocean was an unavoidable natural disaster. The horrifying extent of the loss of life that followed, however, was not.

The U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia received a warning to evacuate, for example, but the people of Sri Lanka did not. Dr. Vickramabahu Karunathne, leader of a broad electoral coalition in Sri Lanka called the New Left Front, argues, “We did not get a warning because we are poor and marginal. It is not technology that failed us: we were let down by global capital and its imperatives.”

And that is only the beginning of the story of how the catastrophe was compounded and exploited by a social system as deadly as any force of nature.

Aiding the corporations. Ordinary people responded to the crisis with an outpouring of solidarity. Australians alone gave more than 200 million in Australian dollars, about $10 for every person (exposing the capitalist myth that people are inherently selfish). But while the public was generous, initial government offers were stingy. The U.S. pledged $15 million, Australia $10 million, and Britain a miserable $1.7 million.

But within a week, the major powers were reassessing, seeing new opportunities to advance foreign policy objectives. Colin Powell explained candidly that U.S. relief efforts would assist “national security interests” and be part of the “global war on terror.”

The U.S. increased its aid tenfold, to $350 million — still less than it spends in just two days on the war in Iraq. Australia made headlines when it announced a $1 billion package to Indonesia.

But the money from both countries will be “tied aid,” a common form of aid that requires the recipient to embrace “free trade” and to use what they receive to purchase goods from the donor nation — a form of corporate welfare.

Moreover, half of the lauded Australian “aid” is actually a loan, which Indonesia must repay with interest! Canberra will control the purse strings through a joint committee to decide how the funds are spent — largely on economic infrastructure to meet the investment needs of Australian companies bidding for lucrative reconstruction contracts.

Abetting the militaries. Both the “helper” countries and those hit by the tsunami are jockeying to use the disaster to improve their military positions.

Nearly half of all world trade passes through the Strait of Malacca, which separates Sumatra, Indonesia’s largest island, from the Malay Peninsula. The U.S., whose armed presence in Asia is the largest since the Vietnam War, has long wanted troops in the area, and by utilising the military in relief efforts gets its foot in the door.

India also has ambitions in the region. It refused foreign assistance to its badly affected Nicobar and Andaman group of islands, which at their nearest lie just 150 kilometres off Sumatra, to protect military secrets on its bases there.

The situation in Indonesia and Sri Lanka is a layered one.

Post-tsunami, foreign imperialists are attempting to increase their military profile and political influence in the two countries — to “recolonise in the guise of relief,” as Dr. Karunathne puts it. In Sri Lanka, 1,500 U.S. Marines have been stationed in the south, and British and Indian troops also have a presence.

At the same time, the Indonesian and Sri Lankan governments are maneuvering to gain advantage in long-running wars with national minorities fighting for liberation: the Tamils in Sri Lanka and the Acehnese in Indonesia. Both groups have been subjected to decades of ruthless oppression, and both live in areas where the tsunami struck hardest.

All major aid agencies work under contract to governments of affected countries. The Indonesian military, or TNI, directly supervises relief workers in the Aceh region, on the northernmost tip of Sumatra. Aid deliverers need a special permit and must be accompanied by the military to travel outside the city of Banda Aceh. TNI officers are preventing assistance from reaching guerrillas in the Free Aceh Movement (GAM).

After the tsunami, GAM called a ceasefire. However, the military continued its campaign to wipe out the movement, and international media reported summary TNI executions of villagers suspected of being GAM supporters.

The military also runs the relief camps, and is capitalising on this to increase its grip on the Acehnese population as a whole.

In Sri Lanka, the army has massively increased its numbers in the Tamil-controlled North and East. It has been given special powers to oversee all relief operations, and disaster management has been consolidated under the authority of President Chandrika Kumaratunga. The president has set up a private-sector “Task Force to Rebuild the Nation” that includes leading Sri Lankan capitalists and is accountable exclusively to the president. This body is to coordinate all of the donor assistance coming into the country.

The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam charge that this centralised, bureaucratic and militarised system of relief operations is preventing aid from being equitably distributed to areas controlled by the LTTE.

And, as in Indonesia, the military in Sri Lanka runs the relief camps and is exploiting this fact to advance its strategic position in the civil war. As is true all over the region, aid in Sri Lanka is being wielded as a political weapon.

Given that the capitalist governments of the region cannot be relied upon to distribute aid fairly, the demand should be raised to establish democratic committees made up of representatives from local communities, trade unions, women’s organisations, students and ethnic minorities. These bodies could establish humane priorities and ensure that aid gets to where it is needed.

Liberation, not recolonisation! Like nations, nongovernmental aid-givers have agendas too. Many of these agencies are religious. Much of the aid given in the U.S., for example, is channelled through missionary organisations, which see the tsunami as an opportunity to spread Christianity.

Some relief organisations, like the Christian fundamentalist World Vision, based in California, are more overtly conservative than others. But as long as their fundamental approach is one of handing out charity, they are all upholders of the status quo.

In contrast, some unions and grassroots groups are mounting relief efforts. Among them are the Indonesian forestry workers’ union at www.labourstart. org/docs/en/000090.html and APHEDA, the aid arm of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, at www.apheda.org.au. It only makes sense to contribute through a workingclass organisation, because the question of aid is first and foremost a class question.

Over the centuries, colonialism and imperialism have siphoned untold wealth from Asia. As a result, the impact of the tsunami was magnified by the poverty of most of those it hit.

Levels of foreign debt are huge. In Indonesia, debt repayment currently absorbs 42 percent of government spending. Simply to service its debt, Indonesia pays $3 billion dollars per year — nine times what the U.S. has promised in aid. The last thing the countries affected by the tsunami need is to be chained to more loans dressed up as aid! Their foreign debts should be cancelled, and aid that’s given should be unconditional, with no strings attached.

For working people in both the Indian Ocean countries and elsewhere, the battle now is the same: to do everything possible to prevent the imperialists from lining their pockets, and strengthening their hands, at the expense of the hungry and homeless survivors of this vast tragedy.

Alison Thorne is a workplace delegate for the Community and Public Sector Union, a contributor to tsunami aid through APHEDA. She can be reached at a.thorne @ bigpond.com

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