Tsunami disaster magnified by poverty, imperialism

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by Gerry Foley

 

Natural disasters like the Southeast Asian tidal wave do serve to highlight the interdependence of the entire human community. The world today cannot remain indifferent to the tragedy of the people living along the coasts of this region.

 

Despite the capitalist offensive under the flag of “neoliberalism” and its extreme individualistic ethos, the level of social consciousness has not been pushed back down to the point where people will accept that they have no responsibility for their fellow human beings.

 

Of course, capitalist governments offer aid under pressure of public opinion, and then they dole it out with an eyedropper. That is well illustrated by the

comedy of the “American generosity” acted out by the Bush administration, when first it offered only $15 million in aid, then raised it to $35 million, and

ultimately to $350 million—finally equaling the price of one fighter bomber.

 

The world outpouring of sympathy for the victims of the tragedy has fueled the rise of international scandals over the little and late aid offered by the

imperialist and capitalist governments and their failure to build warning systems or to actually use the ones they had.

 

Within 16 minutes of the earthquake that produced the tidal wave, for example, the tsunami-warning center in Hawaii learned of the disaster. Although it did not inform the civilian authorities in the countries affected, it did warn a U.S. military base on the island of Diego Garcia.

 

In Thailand, government officials knew of the earthquake but decided against issuing a tsunami warning for fear of upsetting the tourist industry.

 

The Swedish daily Expressen reported on a story in the Thai paper Nation, quoting one of the officials involved as follows: “‘We finally decided not to do

anything because the tourist season was in full swing,’ the source said. ‘The hotels were 100 percent booked. What if we issued a warning, which would have led to an evacuation, and nothing had happened. What would be the outcome? The tourist industry would be immediately hurt. Our department would not be able to endure a lawsuit.”

 

About half of those killed in Thailand were tourists, the largest single group being Swedes, so this story aroused attention in Sweden. It remains to be seen if it is going to raise any questions about why Thailand has become so dependent on Western tourism or what this means for Thai society.

 

Among other things, the development of tourist complexes along the coasts increased the damage caused by the tsunami in many cases and may make its effects far long lasting since it led to the cutting down of the mangrove forests that had offered some protection from flooding.

 

The influx of seawater now threatens to poison the soil deep into the interior. And this is going to become more and more of a problem as the sea level

rises due to global warming The Indonesian government is already reporting the disappearance of many small islands under rising waters.

 

In Sumatra, which accounts for over half of the victims, a warning probably would not have saved many people, given the crowded and unprotected nature of the communities, as well as the closeness of the earthquake. The problem was of a different scale.

 

Tragedies of the scope of the present one in Southeast Asia are never really “natural” disasters. They are the result of a society becoming irrational with

respect to its natural environment. The effect of imperialist domination of the world economy is that large populations have been packed together in flimsy

and disorganized settlements in vulnerable areas.

 

In the imperialist countries, when demographic growth began with the advance of medical technology, the surplus population on the land found jobs in the new

industries, and an industrial network developed, which despite the anarchy of capitalism had to have some level of scientific organization.

 

But the imperialist domination of the world market prevented the spread of industrialization to what is now euphemistically termed the “developing world,”

with the result that huge concentrations of people arose without any modern organization or facilities, agglomerations of people living on the verge of

subsistence. For masses living in such precarious conditions, any natural disaster becomes a social one.

 

Moreover, societies mutilated and distorted by poverty and the structures it fosters are typically ruled by corrupt and ruthless accomplices of imperialism. That is particularly true in the case of Aceh, the small nation on the tip of Sumatra, which has been under military rule.

 

Aceh has a distinct character and a history of stubbornly defending its independence. It was never conquered by the Dutch former colonial rulers of

Indonesia but was handed over to the new government in Jakarta by the treaty that granted independence to Indonesia.

 

In the last years of the Indonesian military dictatorship (which established its power by slaughtering up to a million small farmers in Java), from 1990 to 1998, Aceh was placed under martial law.  Thousands of Acehnese were killed, many buried in mass graves. This was accomplished with the help of

earth-moving machinery lent to the military by the Mobil Oil corporation, which had installations in the area, and was helpful to the military in other ways.

 

The natural riches of Aceh, which is a major producer of oil and natural gas as well as valuable agricultural products, have turned into a curse for the Acehnese people by attracting exploiters who despoil and oppress them.

 

There was a relaxation of the military pressure on Aceh from the fall of the dictatorship until May 2003, when martial law was again put into effect. Since

then, thousands of Acehnese have been killed, 500 schools have been burned, and many thousands of Acehnese have fled, many saying that they were forced to flee because they could not get enough to eat.

 

Now the Indonesian government spokespersons and some of its imperialist admirers are saying that they hope that the Indonesian army bringing aid to the stricken population will reconcile the Acehnese to Indonesian rule and maybe even make them love the Indonesian military—despite its record of mass murder.

 

Since the tsunami, Indonesian forces are continuing to arrest and interrogate alleged pro-independence partisans in Aceh. On Jan. 2, the military announced it had killed three members of the Free Aceh Movement,

who were “interfering” with the relief effort. However, some aid organizations and refugees charge that the military itself has stopped shipments of supplies from reaching the population.

 

A general pattern exists that where there is corruption and social injustice, it is exacerbated by natural disasters. In Nicaragua, the inequities in the

distribution of aid to victims of the Managua earthquake and the corruption of officials administering it were an important factor leading to the success of the insurrection against the Somoza dictatorship in 1979.

 

In Aceh, this pattern is apt to be even more marked, given the oppression that the Acehnese were suffering and Indonesia’s overall poverty.

 

Every “natural disaster,” like the Southeast Asian tsunami, offers another dramatic example of the increasing precariousness of human life in a world

dominated by the capitalist quest for profit and privilege regardless of the social cost. 

*This article first appeared in the January 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper.

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