SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

The tsunami disaster in Sri Lanka

Socialist Party member JIM HENSMAN, who was visiting Sri Lanka at the time the tsunami struck, reflects on the lessons to be learnt from this disaster and its aftermath.

THE ASIAN TSUNAMI disaster led to a tremendous wave of sympathy and concern throughout the world. The fantastic amount of money and relief supplies collected by ordinary people worldwide contrasted strongly with the minimal amounts offered at first by the British and US government, for instance. This mood has an important political significance in its own right as a reflection of the elemental solidarity that exists between people worldwide.

Disasters, however, also potentially have another very powerful effect. During and after the disaster, the world social and political system and the local systems in the countries affected were laid bare, revealing their true nature in a way that is often hidden in more normal times. It is of course necessary to support anything which will benefit the people affected by the disaster. But it is also necessary, if we want to do justice to the people and countries that have been affected, to look at the contradictions and shortcomings that the recent events uncovered and the lessons that can be learned from them.

The simple truth is that if even a small amount of planning, organisation and initiative had existed, much of the terrible human impact of the disaster could at least have been substantially reduced, even without any tsunami warning system at all. The tsunami first hit Sri Lanka just before 8.30am local time. However, the wave that destroyed the southern city of Galle, for instance, didn’t arrive there for another 45 minutes. Thus if these areas had been notified immediately the tsunami first hit the island, there would have been the chance to take some evasive action.

But there is an even more tragic aspect to what happened, which is illustrated by my own experience. I was staying about 300 metres from the sea, just south of Colombo in Mount Lavinia. I was called to the seaside just after 9.30am when the first wave of the tsunami struck, which in fact only came up to the top of the beach. I immediately recognised what had happened as a tsunami, because of the characteristic fall in sea level that was taking place, and was able to warn people that a further wave was imminent. I evacuated my parents before this next wave, which was much bigger, struck. This pattern, of the second or third wave being the most devastating one was in fact typical of most areas hit by the tsunami in Sri Lanka. Yet no warning went out using the media to alert people to this. In the terrible tragedy of the train travelling along the coast, where over 1,500 people died in the world’s worst train disaster, rather than leaving the train after the first wave, the guard and driver advised people to stay on the train and many people actually got onto the train thinking it was safe. A number of people on the train were using mobile phones and could have been alerted if there had been a general warning. A little over a mile from where the train was stopped, was a Buddhist temple on high ground that escaped the tsunami and which could have been a possible place for evacuation.

One further aspect of what happened is worth mentioning because it raises important issues relating to the environment. Where I was, thankfully, even though there was severe damage to property, nobody was killed. Just a few miles down the coast, the affect of the tsunami was much more severe and many people died. Why was this? One major factor was that in these areas, private interests, sometimes with official collusion, have destroyed the coral reefs, mining them for building materials, for example. This had already increased erosion along the coast and the heightened impact of the tsunami without this protection further revealed the price of this destruction of the environment.

The relief operations after the disaster have also exposed the failings of the government and the political and economic system it represents. Six weeks after the disaster occurred, Tilak Ranavirajah, the head of the government relief operations, admitted that only 30% of the people affected by the disaster had received any government relief supplies. At the same time, supplies organised by other sources had been blocked. This was the case, for instance, with water purification tablets sent by Irish Socialist MP, Joe Higgins, which were prevented from being released at Colombo airport. At the same time, bureaucratic mismanagement failed to make the best use of aid that did get through. In my neighbourhood, for instance, where fishermen whose homes had been destroyed had been rehoused in a local school, they received supplies of cooking pots. Unfortunately these were of no use as they hadn’t any facilities to cook where they were. They also received far more supplies of clothing than they could conceivably use, while other areas in the country were desperate for any clothes at all. Here, as with other fishing communities affected by the tsunami, the government without any consultation is planning to rehouse these communities sometimes many miles inland. For fishermen who rarely have any means of transport, this is clearly illogical and will only make the already difficult process of re-establishing normal life even harder for them.

The demand by the United Socialist Party (USP – the Sri Lankan section of the CWI) for relief efforts to be controlled by elected committees of local people and for a National Convention of Working People to be organised to create an alternative that can properly plan and organise relief and rehabilitation, is a crucial one. It is true that poor countries like Sri Lanka do not have the infrastructure that developed countries have to support disaster relief operations. But the fact that how society is organised can be the key factor is shown by the example of Cuba, itself a poor country. Cuba, despite the lack of a democratic system of popular management of society, does not have the constraints of a profit-based economy and can plan and organise to minimise the effect of disasters. In 1998, Hurricane Mitch struck Central America and killed about 10,000 people in countries like Honduras. In 2001, a hurricane with a similar level of severity, Hurricane Michelle, struck Cuba. A mass programme of popular mobilisation was implemented, including the evacuation of 750,000 people. Because of this, in total only five people were killed. Cuba in fact sent a medical team to help Sri Lanka after the disaster, a reflection of the fact that it has 14 times as many doctors per population as Sri Lanka.

It is also important that the international issues that the disaster has highlighted, such as third world debt, be part of campaigns throughout the world. The Central Bank of Sri Lanka announced at the end of January that the country had received about $35m in financial aid. Yet, Sri Lanka’s scheduled repayments of interest on its debt for January alone amounted to $55m. Debt in total is 60% of national income in Sri Lanka and 80% in Indonesia. In both cases, ruinous military spending has been a major contributor to the problem. Even if debt repayments were postponed, this would only compound the problem in the future. Yet some government sources in Sri Lanka have made the point that if the debt was wiped out, Sri Lanka would effectively be considered bankrupt, and not be able to borrow money again. What this demonstrates is that it is the whole system of international finance and the world capitalist system that lies behind it, that has to be changed.

As the tsunami fades from the world’s notice and the attention of the world’s media goes elsewhere, the people of the area will still face the long-term struggle of recovering from the disaster. In Sri Lanka, the small forces of the USP played a heroic role in some areas in the rescue efforts, and have been at the forefront of relief work. Their work deserves the maximum support that can be organised internationally. In 1934-35 in Sri Lanka, a malaria epidemic led to the deaths of over 100,000 people. It was in this situation that the fledgling Marxist movement at the time was instrumental in organising relief efforts, as well as raising the issues of malnutrition and poverty which were responsible for the massive death toll. It was this campaign more than any other, that resulted in the growth of a mass Trotskyist workers’ party in the country. The USP now faces many challenges but also unprecedented opportunities for the future. More than anything, the tsunami shows up the responsibility of the world economic and political system and its national counterparts for the tragic number of deaths that could have easily been avoided and reveals its incapacity to offer a decent future to the survivors. It is our task to help the relief efforts but also fight for a socialist system in each country and internationally that can provide an alternative to this.

For further reports of the work of the USP, and details of the Campaign Sri Lanka appeal, see the CWI website at


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