By Mohamed Harees –
Fifteen years ago, on Boxing Day in December 2004, a 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the Indonesian island of Sumatra and a total of around 230,000 people lost their lives in countries located along the Indian Ocean, including more than 30,000 people in Sri Lanka. All these countries, were not equipped to face the Indian Ocean Tsunami. Tsunami 2004 was thus a wake-up call to many countries in the Indian Ocean to be better prepared to face natural disasters. The need for an early warning system and to be better prepared to manage disasters to save lives and livelihoods was the biggest lesson to be learnt in the aftermath of the tsunami a decade and a half ago. To what extent, Sri Lanka has learnt lessons in such regard is a question, as lessons learnt appear to have been put in the backburner, judging by the ad hoc ways in which other disasters (minor in comparison such as floods) are being managed by the Authorities even later?
Most of the displaced were put up in temples, schools and mosques. Volunteers participated in the search and burial of the dead. There were no major outbreaks of disease, thanks to the efforts of aid organizations and the government, and no shortages of food and clothing, thanks to local groups and usually charitable ordinary Sri Lankans who organized help on their own, as many were worried if they gave money to the government it would be wasted or skimmed off. The effort however lacked coordination. Places off the beaten track often got nothing while places near main roads got more supplies than they could handle. Local government officials often found that they were on their own helping their communities. Many were given no directions by their superiors and had to improvise. Buddhist, Hindu, Christian and Muslim groups provided some grief counselling. Many people who lost family members found it most comforting to talk to other people who had lost loved ones. Many had difficulty getting over snap decisions that resulted in the deaths of family members.
The tsunami, which was the most devastating natural disaster in Sri Lanka’s history, resulted in losses of over $1 billion in assets and $330 million in potential output, according to government estimates. The World Bank simultaneously restructured ten ongoing operations and made $75 million available for immediate emergency recovery needs. Around $2 billion from donations made its way to the Sri Lankan government Relief efforts included setting up water purification centres, temporary housing and trauma-counselling centres. Catherine Philp wrote in the Times of London: “When emergency aid began pouring into Sri Lanka in the days and weeks after the tsunami, it came in a flood through open doors flung wide by a grateful nation. But as the weeks and months have gone by the reconstruction effort has slowed to a crawl, hampered by bureaucracy, incompetence and corruption, much of it on the part of the Sri Lankan Government. Six months after the tsunami struck, thousands of survivors still live in sweltering tents, while others inhabit temporary shelters that will have to be rebuilt in the coming weeks as monsoon rains grow heavier. “It’s a mess,” one United Nations official said. “We should have all these people properly sheltered by now. But this country is awash with aid money that people can’t spend because they are so busy jumping through the hoops that the Government is putting up for them.” ..While frustration grows in the aid community, anger is building among the survivors. [Source: Catherine Philp, Times of London, June 18, 2005].
Corruption in relief and reconstruction efforts undermines the very spirit of humanitarian action; its prevention is key to ensuring effective and equitable assistance to those in greatest need. Corruption is often a particular problem in disaster-prone and conflict-affected countries. The physical effects of the tsunami are likely to have increased opportunities for corruption and exploitation. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, many of the systems normally used to encourage accountability and reduce corruption break down. In a report assessing the situation at the end April 2005, independent Indian research group the Institute for Human Development said only 39 per cent of the $8.6 billion dollars pledged by governments, agencies and private donors had reached those whose lives were shattered by the December 26 tsunamis. According to Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL) , its investigations had revealed a gap between the amounts disbursed by foreign aid agencies and what has been spent on relief and recovery projects since the 2004 tsunami. The difference between the disbursed and the expended (amounts) has been a controversial issue that does not have a credible explanation,. Over US$500 million in tsunami aid given to Sri Lanka has gone “missing”. It had reason to believe that some of the funds “have been utilised by the government for other purposes”. TISL did not elaborate on to what these “other purposes” might have been. There had been no government audit of tsunami aid since an interim report issued in 2005. “Thus, the overall picture on finances is ambiguous and left for speculation”. Among the other issues raised by TISL were political interference in the allotting of housing and allegations of corruption against village level officials which have yet to be investigated.
This note on corruption during Tsunami would not be complete, without a mention of ‘Helping Hambantota’, the scandal that, if not for the timely intervention of the Supreme Court headed by the ‘shady CJ’ Sarath N Silva, would have torpedoed the presidency of MR before it even began. The process of siphoning off tsunami aid began very early indeed, and among the most bizarre and egregious examples of abuse was the scandal that came to be known as Helping Hambantota. This revolved around donations of upwards of Rs 100 million handed over to then Prime Minister MR by generous donors in the first weeks after the tragedy.. Sarath Silva later ‘apologized’ to the nation that he made a mistake in exonerating MR.The Sunday Leader got wind of and exposed the Helping Hambantota diversion in early July, 2005. Resultantly, what happened to Lasantha Wickrematunge is history. Even during Yahapalana regime, this was not opened up, although the alleged embezzlement of tsunami aid occurred before MR became president, during a period in which he enjoyed no immunity.
Thus, including Tsunami experience, corruption at the highest levels of power continues unabated on both sides of the political divide. In fact, Central bank scam was an example during Yahapalana regime. Political corruption is rife at all levels and judging by the patterns of voting by the Sri Lankan electorate, corruption has become normalised and socially acceptable too, voting in, even well- known corrupt figures to Parliament while political parties have no accountability for campaign funds. Thus, as Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Director General in the nation’s Institute of National Security Studies (April 2019) at a press interview about his using technology to crowdsource and track corruption in government, said ‘corruption is widespread in Sri Lanka, arising from “policy blunders, loss-making and inefficient government institutions”, and posing “huge” socioeconomic problems. The country has a corruption score of 38 out of 100 on Transparency International, and is ranked 89th out of 180 countries’. Corruption is thus a deep-rooted problem that Sri Lanka needs to overcome if it needs to leave the past behind, and take its due place in the community of nations, shedding its shady image of corruption.
Tsunamis are giant waves caused by earthquakes or volcanic eruptions under the sea. However, earthquake and tsunami are often used metaphorically. Tsunami also functions very much like wave, both literally and figuratively – it’s just much bigger and more impressive. The adjective seismic and also tsunamis regularly appear in many expressions on sudden changes or great and devastating changes in the social and political landscapes. In this regard, Sri Lanka has also faced many a tsunamis and seismic upheavals as well in our Post-Independence history. Political tsunami is also used as one of the metaphors, which are the heart of emotion in political language. Besides, like the damage that a tsunami causes, and the ravage that is left behind after a tsunami, is perceived as enormous; so is are damage left behind after political tsunamis too.
The after effects of these political tsunamis are much worse than the 2004 Tsunami. One of the worst political tsunamis which took a heavy toll in Sri Lanka was the ‘Tsunami of Hate and Otherisation’. Many such tsunamis occurred within the Paradise Isle which raised tell tales signs for Sri Lanka to become a divided nation with no proper democratic space for the minorities. Significant among these political tsunamis were the majoritarian Sinhala waves which hit Sri Lanka in Post 1956, in Post-1983, in Post- 2009, Post Easter 2019 and NOW even the post-elections of December 2019 will also pose a much danger to the concept of an inclusive nation as well, if not managed properly.
In 1956, SWRD Bandaranaike decided that the only way that he could break into the then prevailing dynastic succession was to resort to the ethnic politics of language and religion that would guarantee him a ready-made electoral majority. Thus, he came to power on the twin platforms of making Sinhala the official language and Buddhism the state religion. SWRD was caught between his social democratic principles and his nationalist practice, although he proposed to make Tamil a regional language, his ministers and the Opposition opposed and the Buddhist monks, whom Bandaranaike himself was instrumental in bringing out of the monasteries and on to the hustings where their influence was decisive, demanded that he return to his original remit. This laid the foundation for a divisive Sri Lanka; one language and two nations.
In 1983 , the tsunami which arose after the infamous Anti-Tamil pogrom, made Sri Lanka a pariah state in the eyes of the global community. As President Jayewadene and his government would later admit in a statement, “a pattern of organization and planning has been noticed in the rioting and looting that took place”. President JRJ made an address to the nation and blamed the Tamils indirectly. He stated that the riots were “not a product of urban mobs but a mass movement of the generality of the Sinhalese people.. the time had come to “appease the natural desires and requests of the Sinhalese people to prevent the country from being divided”. About JRJ, Basil Fernando, in an article to Colombo Telegraph said ‘Jayewardene’s legacy of causing Black July and for what came after needs much closer scrutiny and exposure. The institution of the Executive Presidency, which was coming under severe resistance from democratic forces, was thus saved. Those who are today benefiting from the survival of the executive presidency owe it to what JR Jayawardene did in July 1983. This aspect of the political history of Sri Lanka has not been adequately highlighted because there are still those who are benefiting from this executive presidential system. Understanding the catastrophe that came about on all Sri Lankan public institutions and political life requires much reflection on the initiative that JR Jayewardene took to unleash Black July’.
In 2009, MR gave political leadership to win over Tigers after long 30 years of ethnic strife. Although he was initially careful to use conciliatory language and speak about the importance of winning the peace, not just the war, there have been no concrete steps toward a lasting political solution to Sri Lanka’s thorny ethnic problem. Tamils were marginalised further. He then attempted instead to project himself as a modern-day incarnation of King Dutugemunu. In the process, he opened another can of worms by allowing hate groups to emerge and lay their hands on the next biggest minority – the Muslims and demonise and harass them. This process of marginalization of Sri Lanka’s Muslims continued even after Yahapalana government came to power as well. This anti-Muslim hate wave started another socio-political tsunami which caused havoc in various forms and continues to-date. Impunity crisis is also affecting Sri Lanka’s international credibility.
In 2019, Easter Sunday tragedy opened up another Tsunami tearing the social fabric of Sri Lanka apart. The government was mainly culpable in not heeding many intelligence leads about the impending disaster. Despite many inquiries into the terror wave on that fateful Sunday, still those responsible are not identified, while Muslims are being collectively demonised. This wave of demonization lead to nationalism and racism, which played a decisive role in bringing in Gotabaya as the President in typical Modi style. Many hate and Sinhala Buddhist groups have got renewed inspiration, asking for blood and majoritarian measures to be enacted which will deny democratic voice for the minorities. Even Sinhala Christians are affected too. This wave of majoritarian and Sinhala supremacism is also a political tsunami of substantial impact, and if the aftermath is not managed properly, the aspiration for Sri Lanka to be an inclusive nation will just evaporate as a dream. It is upto the President to work towards making Sri Lanka a corrupt-free, racism- free, equitable country for all communities, learning lessons not just from Tsunami in 2004, but from many political tsunamis too which wreaked havoc in making this country a hell–hole particularly for the minorities in the past. It is imperative for Sri Lankan authorities to make efforts to dismantle the networks of hate, speak out against hateful narratives and also institute urgent reforms to the education system “to foster inclusive identities”. Warning bells have been sounded and it is up to the leaders to take heed and take effective measures without playing to the gallery.