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Sri Lankan Tsunami disaster: The struggle for survival and justice goes on
THE PEOPLE in Sri Lanka who lost everything in the tsunami disaster of 26 December are still left with nothing. They have suffered horrific personal tragedies and become victims of incompetence, corruption and political power struggles.
Siritunga Jayasuriya, Secretary of the United Socialist Party (CWI, Sri Lanka)
Six months on, our party has been in the forefront of the Tsunami people's fight for justice. On 26 June we were involved in major protests across some of the hardest-hit areas in the East and South of the island - Pottuvil, Galle, Matara.
Sri Lanka's government promised, after the disaster struck, to fulfil the tsunami-affected people's needs within six months, especially to build new houses for them. Six months on vast numbers still live in huts or tents, with a government handout of only Rs 375 (£2) per week to each family to live on. Things are so bad that in the tsunami-affected arreas, 16% of children are suffering from malnutrition.
According to the government's post-tsunami Rehabilitation and Reconstruction report, over 35,000 homes were destroyed and a further 47,500 badly damaged. Yet construction work has started on only 2,325 permanent homes.
Also, very little has been done by the government to rebuild and repair the hospitals, health clinics, schools and colleges damaged and destroyed by the tsunami. The jobs of more than 250,000 people were also destroyed.
Government reports say that more than 15,000 boats were destroyed and a million nets either destroyed or damaged. But even now very few fishermen have got new boats or nets to be able to do their work.
Fishermen are also facing a big problem in the government's ban on building within 100 metres of the shore. In countries like ours, they are used to living and working on the beach. The new rule makes this impossible. Meanwhile, developers move in unhindered to build marinas and resorts for tourists to make their fortunes.
These things make the Tsunami people angry. Neglect, corruption, discrimination and privilege have also plagued the reconstruction.
We have been involved in the establishment of the Tsunami People's organisations in all the camps, to expose the injustices and mobilise the anger felt against the government.
Joint mechanism and aid
The government's inability to deal with the disaster is shown in the fact that, six months on, it has only just managed to finalise an agreement with the separatist Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE) over the distribution of $3 billion foreign relief aid.
A joint mechanism has at last been set up but this has released only 10% of total aid to the eastern and northern areas of Sri Lanka which suffered around 60% of the total tsunami-wrought damage. The delay and now the protest demonstrations are due to the violent opposition displayed by Sinhala communal forces, particularly the chauvinist JVP, inside and outside the government.
In this extremely tense situation, the United Socialist Party is the only organisation continuing to campaign amongst the Tsunami people for their rights. We continue to campaign against any discrimination towards poor people and the Tamil-speaking people of Sri Lanka.
We have been campaigning with posters against price rises, against privatisation and against chauvinist communalism which could tragically break the ceasefire between the government and Tamil Tigers reached after 20 years of civil war.
We have been enormously assisted in our work by the tremendous donations from all the CWI sections, trade union branches and individual supporters in response to our special appeal to help the Tsunami people. We cannot say thank you enough times.
But what we have been able to do is nothing compared to their needs. We have given out things like school books, bags, shoes, kitchen utensils and bicycles to the Tsunami victims.
But our main role is assisting them with protests and struggles to get justice from the government. Many are seeing the corruption and hypocrisy of capitalism and imperialism.
So far we have printed two issues of a special tsunami newspaper - Tsunami People's Voice - in both the Sinhala and Tamil languages. We have had an enthusiastic response from the people - they say that we are the only organisation campaigning for them and that, unfortunately, seems to be the case. We intend to continue with this work unstintingly but also to build the fighting strength of our party as a force for genuine socialist change.
The USP is calling demonstrations and assisting tsunami victims to organise democratic campaigns for their rights. Our demands are for democratic control of the aid and for it to be distributed to those who need it, for immediate compensation of tsunami victims and an end to the infamous 100 metre (coastal construction) ban.
How Crescent City coped with a 'natural disaster'
THE CATASTROPHIC Asia tsunami is usually called a 'natural disaster'. But were a quarter of a million deaths and countless injuries an unavoidable 'act of god'?
True, earthquakes and tsunamis can't be prevented. Though the danger zones are well known, the timing of quakes is unpredictable. But with proper precautions, most deaths and injuries could be avoided.
Within minutes of the massive Sumatra quake on 26 December, scientists who monitor earth tremors knew there would be a huge tsunami across the Indian Ocean.
But their warnings reached only a handful of scientists and officials in the endangered countries. In any case, the most vulnerable, like Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, had no public warning or evacuation plans in place.
Millions of poor people that scrape a bare living from fishing and farming beside the sea, together with thousands of tourists, were left totally vulnerable.
Contrast this with the situation in the USA. On 14 June a magnitude 7.2 earthquake under the Pacific hit Crescent City (population 8,000), California, with smaller quakes further south. Alerted by the West Coast & Alaska Warning Centre, the US National Weather Service sent a tsunami warning to the whole west coast.
In 1964 the Crescent City area was hit by a 20-foot wave triggered by a big quake off Alaska. Eleven people died. After that, the city installed a tsunami warning system, with sirens, evacuation plans, and regular drills. "We planned, and planned, and planned," said one sheriff, "and when it came to the actual thing, it worked."
Sirens sounded, police cars toured with loudspeakers. 4.000 people from the low-lying, vulnerable area were on their way to high ground in just 20 minutes. "99.9% moved out in an orderly fashion from the coast and out of the run-up zone."
In the event, there was no tsunami. The earth's plates had jolted sideways, not vertically as in Sumatra. But Crescent City shows what can be done.
With a proper warning system and evacuation plans, most of last year's Asian tsunami deaths and injuries could have been avoided. But there were no warnings, not even the most basic evacuation plans - despite the well-known inevitability of earthquakes and tsunami in the Indian Ocean.
The human impact of 'natural disasters' - earthquakes, cyclones, floods, etc - varies enormously between rich and poor countries, and between the rich and poor everywhere. In the countries around the Indian Ocean, rotten capitalists and corrupt governments abandoned the poor and vulnerable to their fate. Now. like parasites, they are sucking new profits from foreign aid and reconstruction projects.
When it comes to 'natural disasters', rulers and oppressed, rich and poor, are just as unequal as in every other area of life.
In The Socialist 30 June 2005: