Link to this page: https://www.socialistparty.org.uk/issue/376/4229
Sri Lanka after the tsunami - opportunities and tensions
FOLLOWING THE tsunami in Sri Lanka, more than 40,000 people have lost their lives and there are about 800,000 refugees.
Senan, a CWI member from Jaffna living in London, comments on the situation, especially in the north and east.
Senan includes comments from phone conversations with Siritunga Jayasuriya, secretary of the United Socialist Party (USP - CWI in Sri Lanka).
IN SRI Lanka, people have reacted far quicker to the tsunami disaster than their government. Unexpectedly, it has provided an opportunity for the Tamil and Sinhalese masses to work together and to realise that co-existence is possible and to experience it. Unfortunately, the authorities are not using this opportunity to forge unity on the divided island, but the opposite.
The USP has condemned the way the government is treating the disaster victims and calls for the aid operation to be under the control of elected committees of workers and poor people, and without any discrimination on the basis of nationality, religion or caste.
People from the south of the island have been more than willing to take aid to the north, including to areas controlled by the separatist Liberation Tamil Tigers of Eelam (LTTE). But big tensions have developed between the government, the Sri Lankan army and the Tamils of the North and East.
The 'Tigers' have blamed the government for not sending sufficient aid and are appealing to the international community to give aid to them directly.
While the mass of people north and south were struggling to feed themselves and find shelter, the minister of Public Security, Law and Order and Buddhist affairs, Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, made the openly chauvinist comment: "Although most temples in those districts were devastated by tidal waves, Buddha statues in temples were unharmed". He claimed this was proof that non-Buddhist religions like Hinduism and Islam were evil!
This is how the initial genuine attempts made by the Sinhala and Tamil masses to work together are being undermined by racist, communal politicians like him in the south.
The LTTE has reported that several lorries sent by TRO (the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation of the LTTE) to the eastern district of Trincomalee were hijacked by the Sinhala chauvinist JVP (People's Liberation Front).
The situation got even worse when the government decided to ban UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, from visiting affected areas in the North-East. Annan told the government that he was on a humanitarian and not a political visit. However he was refused permission to travel.
Immediately after the disaster the government's official propaganda machine went into full swing. The pro-government Sinhala media in the South immediately spread rumours that the LTTE leader, Pirabakaran and its intelligence chief, Pottu Amman, had died when the tsunami struck.
They also claimed that one of the refugee camps in the north was set on fire by LTTE members. The LTTE claims that a group of Sri Lankan soldiers did it when the refugees refused their aid offer. Instead of easing the tension between the communities all the government is doing is further fuelling the divisions.
THE CHANDRIKA government is systematically using the army to sabotage the aid operation. Poor people from the north will undoubtedly be suspicious of aid from the military. The 20-year-old civil war created a disaster nothing short of the one they are facing now, with more than 60,000 people losing their lives.
Many of those were through the bombing and shelling conducted by the Sri Lankan forces. The historical role of the Sri Lankan military in the north makes them the last choice to lead any kind of aid work. However, the Sri Lankan government made it their first choice.
India and the US have also given military support to the government. The Sri Lankan government has more than welcomed Indian military support regardless of the sensitivities amongst the Tamil-speaking population. The poor masses of the north have not forgotten the destruction and tyranny the Indian forces brought with them on their last visit to the country on a so-called 'peace-keeping' mission.
If the US military advances towards the east of the country where the Sri Lankan army bases are, then the LTTE will see this as a flagrant provocation.
India has its own imperialist interests in the region. So, of course, does the US government. The US seized the opportunity to get into Sri Lanka, with an eye on Trincomalee as a naval base for its military operations. If the US gives help now, then obviously they will expect big favours in return.
The harbour of Trincomalee is one of the most desirable harbours for any navy. Control of this area is understandably one of the focal points of the peace process discussions between the Sri Lankan government and the LTTE.
The foreign military presence will only destabilise this region of the Sri Lankan island and sabotage the peace process.
Fishing communities worst hit
IT IS the fishing communities of Sri Lanka that are the most affected by the tsunami, but they are also the most discriminated against.
Those affected by the disaster were predominantly poor and working class. Their life depends on the sea. Unlike in countries in the West, people live near the sea for the sole purpose of fishing. But the Sri Lankan president, Kumaratunga, has banned the construction of new houses near the sea. If so, the government must provide the fishermen with access to the sea, to do their work, or they will have to rebuild their small cottages near the sea.
Not only the houses destroyed by the sea should be replaced, but also the fishing equipment should be supplied free for them. The government's provision of private loans is not acceptable.
In the north, the fishing community is considered to be low caste and they run the risk of being discriminated against by the dominant upper caste. The upper caste occupies most of the leading government posts and have most of the leading business interests in the north, and contribute substantially to the LTTE's finances. The LTTE has the responsibility to ensure that all aid is distributed without discrimination.
In the devastated East, the majority in some communities of Tamil-speaking people are Muslims. The USP has members in that area, many now displaced and living in camps. They will be fighting against any manifestations of discrimination with regard to aid and for democratically-elected committees to be making all the decisions on relief.
Destruction and reconstruction
IN THE South, the Ampara and Galle Districts were completely devastated. Thousands of houses were destroyed. Siritunga reported that bridges, roads, and railway tracks were gone. More than 12 hospitals have been completely destroyed and 25 partially destroyed. 59 schools were completely destroyed and 110 schools partly destroyed. (The LTTE claims that in the north more than 200 schools have been destroyed.)
Given the scale of the destruction, the reconstruction task is enormous. The Sri Lankan government estimates it would cost them more than $1 billion in the first year alone. In this situation there are always cases of misappropriation of money meant for relieving the suffering of ordinary working and poor people by corrupt bureaucrats.
The Sri Lankan government itself is not keen on reconstruction in rural areas; they have not done any major construction work in rural areas for decades. There are reports that the Sri Lankan share market is already benefiting from the disaster.
Under the cover of a polite humanitarian appearance the capitalist class is already making profit from the tsunami business. Meanwhile prices of essential goods and fuel have rocketed.
THE USP has a long history of fighting for the rights of the working class and the poor masses in Sri Lanka and for the rights of the Tamil-speaking people, up to and including an independent homeland (if that is what they desire), while defending basic rights for minorities within it.
The USP is calling for maximum unity to overcome any national conflicts. We are calling for the working class to unite against the government's divisive tactics.
A real attempt at relief has not yet started. USP secretary Sritunga Jayasuriya reported that there is the possibility of riots breaking out in refugee camps. There have been signs of this in the north's refugee camps.
Workers' councils elected by the workers and poor people should distribute the aid. Committees of displaced people, together with local trade unions and political parties, should run the camps and centres. There should not be any discrimination based on race, religion or caste. Displaced people should not be treated like beggars.
There should be no money made by the banks or private companies out of this disaster. Special arrangements should be made to ensure that people who had small shops or workplaces will be compensated and assisted to restart their lives.
Fishing equipment such as boats and nets should be given free to those whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the tsunami, along with interest-free loans to re-start their lives.
The government of Sri Lanka is already spending too much money on war efforts. All war resources should be allocated for reconstruction.
The USP is also calling for US forces to leave, and there should no foreign military bases established to serve the interests of the imperialists. All attempts to militarise the situation and control the aid and welfare centres by the army should stop.
All foreign debts should immediately be cancelled. The IMF and the World Bank should pay back for reconstruction the massive sums which they have stolen from the Sri Lankan working class through high interest payments and highly exploitative profit-making methods.
If there had been an earthquake warning system in Sri Lanka, the train that was lifted off the rails by the tsunami with two thousand people on it would not even have left Colombo station. All those lives were lost unnecessarily.
It has been successive, criminally irresponsible capitalist governments in Sri Lanka who have failed to install the proper warning systems. The USP is demanding that all necessary tsunami and natural disaster warning systems should be installed immediately.
The USP is intending to conduct a poster campaign on all the major demands against the government and for democratic control over the disaster programmes. This is going to be a very tough but very necessary campaign.
Sri Lanka appeal
Socialist Party members can assist our section in Sri Lanka by donating to Campaign Sri Lanka.
On 14 January a container of clothes, tents and medical supplies will be sent to Sri Lanka where comrades of the USP will again set out from Colombo to each of the worst-hit areas, taking supplies for the most needy.
We are asking Socialist Party members to give a donation to the Sri Lanka appeal fund to help our members and to enable them to produce political material as soon as possible.
Please donate via the CWI website or use the account detailed below. There is also an appeal sheet attached for collecting from supporters, the public, trade union branches etc.
Donations can be made:
Online at www.socialistworld.net
Add the words Campaign Sri Lanka to the comment box. An appeal sheet can also be downloaded from the website.
Directly to: Campaign Sri Lanka, Lloyds TSB, Leytonstone branch. Account number 0023293, Sort code 30-95-03
By cheque to Campaign Sri Lanka, c/o Committee for a Workers' International,
PO Box 3688,
London, Britain, E11 1YE
Tel: ++ 44 20 8988 8760,
Fax: ++ 44 20 8988 8793
Messages of support can be sent directly to the USP in Sri Lanka:
Indian Ocean disaster exposes capitalist society
THE TSUNAMI disaster has exposed the depth of poverty and exploitation in 'Third World' countries. Young people in particular are moved not only to give assistance, but to do something to change the world.
Every week 150,000 people die in Africa from preventable illnesses associated with shortages of food, clean water, sanitation. This is equivalent to the death toll of the Indian Ocean tsunami every seven or eight days.
Millions of people around the Indian Ocean have been deprived by the tsunami of what little they had. But under the capitalist profit system, billions are being robbed daily of the right to a decent life. None other than the chairman of the World Bank described how the 'tsunami' of new quota arrangements is set to slaughter over 300,000 jobs, mostly female garment workers in Sri Lanka.
Donations and aid
THE GENEROSITY of millions of people around the world has been staggering. By contrast, the word "stingy" has been widely accepted as the best way to describe the top politicians, governments and multinational companies in relation to appeals for help.
What hypocrisy on the part of retail chains like New Look who donate the first two hours of trading on 8 January to the disaster fund and continue to buy fashion clothing made by predominantly women garment workers in the free trade zones of Sri Lanka and other Asian countries.
Stung by both the scale of the disaster and the massive public response, governments have now entered a "Dutch auction" as to who can give the most. But even the US government's upped total of $350 million is still, as the writer George Monbiot has underlined, the equivalent of only one-and-a-half days' spending in Iraq.
Internationally, a total nearing $8 billion has been pledged. But scepticism abounds as to whether governments and companies will actually hand over even half of what they have pledged.
THE US administration has decided to use the Indian Ocean disaster to gain power and prestige in the region itself. The 9/11 attacks saw a stepping up of the US presence in the Pacific region (and central Asia) under the guise of the 'war against terrorism'. Now, US marines and warships are arriving in Sri Lanka and elsewhere in the Indian Ocean, under the cloak of humanitarian aid.
Bush has undoubtedly decided to take advantage of the situation and conduct a charm offensive in the wake of the disaster to gain prestige and to step up the US military presence in the Indian Ocean region. He came out for the immediate installation of an early warning system in the region, which had been rejected as unnecessary by both Asian and US governments before 26 December.
Bush has switched tack, also under pressure, to soften relations with the United Nations rather than go ahead with a restricted 'Core Group'. He has sent Colin Powell, on his last mission before stepping down as Secretary of State, briefly to Thailand and Sri Lanka and, most importantly, to Indonesia.
As he arrived in Jakarta, capital of the world's most populous Islamic country, he declared that Muslims there, along with the rest of the world, had: "An opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action...And I hope as a result of our efforts ... that value system of ours will be reinforced." The US relief work, he added, should also: "Dry up pools of dissatisfaction which might give rise to terrorist activity!"
This is utopian. Apart from the recent brief ceasefire, the Indonesian government - a thinly disguised military regime - has been at war with the whole Acehan people, not just the guerrilla force of GAM, killing them and suppressing their rights on a mass scale. Fighting has resumed in some areas and in a few weeks, when the media leaves the area, the emergency will be re-imposed and reporters excluded.
IN ITS opposition to aid from foreign forces and in sending its own troops and, under cover of aid, to Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Indonesia, the Indian capitalist class is also pursuing its own regional ambitions, aiming to rival China and Japan in the whole of Asia.
None of the underlying daily economic disasters befalling these peoples of the Indian Ocean region of the world or of Africa - a continent struggling for survival - is going to be solved on a capitalist basis.
The ruling capitalist classes fear the exposure of the real state of affairs in their world. They fear the assertion by oppressed nations of their right to independence and will continue to oppose it. They fear the anger of the youth and the renaissance of the workers' movement that can struggle for an end to their system of exploitation and poverty.
Global warming, the result of industrial production under capitalism, means that the planet and its population are moving rapidly towards disaster.
Class society and capitalism are overwhelmingly responsible for the precarious existence of the whole world's population. The tsunami disaster must be seen as a brutal wake-up call to all those who want to change the world. Get involved in the struggle for a socialist society and a truly internationalist global society.
Extracts from CWI statement.
See www.socialistworld.net for full article
In The Socialist 15 January 2005: