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From The Socialist newspaper, 8 January 2005

Indian Ocean tsunami disaster

Scale of tragedy was avoidable

MILLIONS IN the world are shocked by what happened on the shores of the Indian Ocean on the morning of 26 December when over 150,000 of some of the world's most poverty-stricken people were battered and swept to gruesome deaths.

Around the globe, a huge amount of sympathy is being expressed and a desire to do something to help. Millions of dollars have been donated to send aid relief to the stricken countries.

People feel that something must be done, not only to assist the grieving and the survivors but also to prevent any repetition of such widespread death and destruction. They are asking: "Why were casualties so large? Why no warning systems? What is the future for the millions affected? How can their lives not only be rebuilt but dramatically improved?"

"Poor cling to a precarious existence"

In a special programme on BBC television on 29 December, John Simpson described the area of the world as "one where the wealthy [and we would say, not so wealthy] come to holiday and the poor cling to a precarious existence at the best of times".

As the Financial Times wrote on 29 December: "The number of foreign holidaymakers caught in the tsunami caused by Sunday's earthquake ensured the rest of the world paid attention to a disaster that, according to the United Nations, was unique in encompassing such a large area and so many countries."

This is in stark contrast to the scant coverage given to the Iranian earthquake disaster of exactly one year ago - 26 December 2003, in Bam - when over 31,000 people also met sudden death.

In Haiti, one of the poorest nations, over 2,000 died last May in mudslides following floods. Like the Bam disaster, the world's media quickly moved on to other events.

Toll escalating

The total figure killed directly by the waves will continue to rise as the 'body management' operation reaches its peak in the next few days.

Of the people reported dead 94,000 are in Indonesia, mostly in Aceh on the island of Sumatra (see page 8), and 29,700 in Sri Lanka, with a further 5,000 still missing. Thousands are being found dead in Thailand - local people and also more than 800 tourists on the idyllic beach of Khao Lak featured in The Beach film.

Yet, according to the Financial Times (3 January), seismologists at Thailand's meteorological office, who knew of the powerful earthquake within minutes, withheld issuing an alert because they feared "damaging the tourist industry".

India saw over 14,500 dead on the mainland, many from Tamil Nadu. And 8,000 could have been killed when the tsunami hit the remote Andaman and Nicobar Islands. Here, survivors complain bitterly of the lack of help by officials who are also downplaying the number of dead.

The devastation all occurred in the space of a few hours. Repairing it, however, will be the work of decades. On top of this, it is now clear, there will be much criticism aimed at political 'leaders' for totally inadequate responses to the disaster. Among them will be George Bush who, in spite of his call for an early warning system to be put in place in the Indian Ocean, remained on holiday. So too did Tony Blair.

Bush increased US aid from an initial $35 million to $350 million but only after much international and domestic criticism of his administration's miserly response. As one Democrat Senator put it: "We spend $35 million before breakfast each day in Iraq."

NUMEROUS QUESTIONS will have to be answered, especially whether the scale of human fatalities could have been avoided.

Countries in which earthquakes and tidal waves are always a risk should all be equipped with early warning systems. The cost is infinitesimal compared with the losses and costs of rescue and relief on the gigantic scale of that now needed.

The island of Diego Garcia, apparently as vulnerable as many other islands in the Indian Ocean escaped without any casualties. It just happens to have a US Air Force base on it, which is directly linked to the US Pacific Command in Hawaii which knew about the earthquake hours before the tsunamis hit the island's shores. Even half-an-hour's warning gives enough time to get away from the wave.

Workers and their organisations, the key to survival

THE WORKING class is the only force that can mobilise to deal with the real crises arising from capitalist rule locally and internationally.

First, in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami catastrophe, the organised workers should be the main force for control over rescue and rebuilding operations. They should set the pace in establishing democratic control over relief work and rebuilding, and not leave the decisions in the hands of the authorities and self-seeking, corrupt bureaucrats.

In Sri Lanka the unions and left parties must demand an end to war preparations, and all monies for arms to go for a recovery and reconstruction programme. This should include a massive injection of public money and money from the imperialist countries who have squeezed the economies of South Asia and Africa dry.

Cancel foreign debt, not just delay repayment. It is the 'system' that must be changed.

Socialists campaign for the complete transformation of society through a struggle against all forms of privatisation and deregulation. We also fight for a government that will carry through the public ownership of all major industry, land and banks under the democratic control and management of the working class. This will enable a plan of production based on need and not for profit.

The tragedy of 26 December 2004 has given a glimpse of the horrors which hover over the lives of the billions of working and poor people of the Asian and African continents. Only by stepping up an organised and internationalised struggle against global capitalism and for truly democratic socialism can bring into prospect the elimination of man-made perils and the minimisation of the effects on human life of any genuine 'act of nature' still to come.

Relief and reconstruction

IN ACEH, aid is being delayed because of the blocking of access by the Indonesian government and army. It is also a disgrace that the Sri Lankan Army has, according to Tamil sources, blocked the transport of emergency supplies sent by Tamils abroad to reach the war-devastated north of the island.

In poverty-stricken Tamil Nadu we can expect a repetition of what the journalist Peter Popham calls the "crafty manoeuvring of local political parties and politicians to ensure optimum seats on the gravy train".

There will undoubtedly be more aid going to the better connected victims of the disaster than the lowest caste and 'dalit' families who are bereft of even a means to earn a living.

Trade unions and other workers' organisations in the donor countries must try to ensure the speedy despatch of aid. In the recipient countries, workers' representatives must be able to intervene to ensure the resources for disaster relief and reconstruction are fairly distributed.

There should be no discrimination in the distribution of aid on the basis of nationality, religion or political affiliation.

There should be the maximum democratic control over all aid and emergency programmes through elected committees of workers and poor people in each area and nationally.

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In The Socialist 8 January 2005:

They didn't have to die

Scale of tragedy was avoidable

India: A disaster made worse by poverty

Sri Lanka appeal

It was no 'Act of God'

Aceh: Indonesian military hampers aid operation

Strike against low pay

Fighting a failing system

Reports expose inequality scandal

How to resist New Labour's attacks

Elections in Iraq - but no peace or democracy

Fatah leaders 'unite' behind Abbas


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