The politics of disaster

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Zafar Bangash

Dhu al-Hijjah 21, 1425 2005-02-01


by Zafar Bangash (Reflections, Crescent International Vol. 33, No. 12, Dhu al-Hijjah, 1425)

The world rediscovered a largely forgotten word as the new year rolled in: tsunami. The tragedy wrought on the countries of the Indian Ocean brought out both the best and worst in human beings. Ordinary individuals all over the world opened their hearts to help the victims of this tragedy; governments first downplayed it, then discovered it as an opportunity for self-promotion. President George Bush’s initial pledge of US$15 million for the tsunami victims – which he said reflected America’s “generosity” – was called “stingy” by the UN. He then increased it to $35 million — still less than the amount earmarked for his inauguration celebrations. Only later did the US increase its pledge to $350 million. At the UN-sponsored conference in Jakarta on January 7, heads of government and foreign ministers from 28 countries tried to outbid each other in pledges but, as UN secretary general Kofi Annan pointed out, these seldom become reality. His plea for US$1 billion in immediate emergency assistance fell on deaf ears. Annan revealed that earlier pledges had not materialized either. Of the US$1 billion pledged for the Bam earthquake victims in Iran a year ago, only $17 million has been delivered. Other disaster areas have fared little better.

In the West’s media, there was more concern for Western tourists affected in Thailand than for the hundreds of thousands of Sri Lankans, Acehnese and Maldivians killed by the tsunami. There is clearly a hierarchy even in death. The death toll in Sri Lanka is almost 50,000; in Aceh-Sumatra, it has already exceeded 166,000. There are at least 35,000 orphans, some of whom have already been snatched by Christian missionaries and smuggled out of the country. When people in Aceh objected, Jakarta announced a ban on all children under the age of 16 leaving the country unless accompanied by parents. Other Christians, especially Americans, have also been proselytizing with food in one hand and Bible in the other.

Other factors have been at work. In Sri Lanka, the Tamils’ ongoing conflict with the Sinhalese majority has got much greater publicity than the suffering of the Acehnese at the hands of the Indonesian military. In Sri Lanka, more than half of the dead or affected are Muslims, as they lived in the tsunami-struck coastal areas. Some Muslim villages have been completely wiped out; in others the death toll is so high that the local population cannot cope. They sought help from Muslims in Colombo and Kandy. The Pakistan-based Edhi Foundation rushed 100,000 metres of cloth for shrouds (in addition to rescue boats and medicines), but this quickly ran out and people had to be wrapped in plastic sheets for burial.

Mosques in Aceh were turned into camps and relief centres but because of the lack of resources — toilets, clean drinking water, food and medicines — the outbreak of disease is a major concern, especially in the sweltering heat and humidity. Among the dead in Aceh was Sufian Ibrahim Tiba, chief negotiator of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), who was arrested and jailed, with the rest of his team, by the Indonesian military after negotiations broke down in May 2003. When the tsunami struck, he and other political prisoners drowned in their cells as the guards fled.

The Swedish-based Acehnese government-in-exile offered an immediate ceasefire on December 26, 2004—the day the tsunami struck—to facilitate relief work; it was rejected by the Indonesian government. Malik Mahmud, prime minister of the Acehnese government-in-exile, renewed the offer on January 12 when the Indonesian government claimed that relief efforts were being hampered because of “rebel” activity. Relief workers and journalists have dismissed Jakarta’s allegations, reporting that Indonesian soldiers have been attacking civilians and withholding aid by stocking it in military depots, while people outside beg for food. Soldiers have also been selling relief goods at exorbitant prices. Acehnese complaining of the shortage of food have been branded “rebels” and arrested; some have been shot dead on the spot.

As part of its “help”, the US announced that it was lifting restrictions on the sale of military spare parts to Indonesia that were imposed after Jakarta’s assault on East Timor in 1999. Britainhad likewise held a fair in Jakarta last November to facilitate the sale of one billion pounds’ worth of weapons to Indonesia. This will no doubt help the Indonesian military to crush the aspirations of the Acehnese for freedom more efficiently. The Muslim Acehnese have received little media attention, despite 20,000 deaths, compared to the Christians of East Timor. There is also widespread cynicism about the extent of the US’s commitment, with suspicions that Washington will deduct much of the cost of its contribution, such as the use of helicopters from the Pacific fleet to ferry supplies, from the aid it does provide, which itself is unlikely to reach anything like the figure pledged.

All this goes on at a time that Muslims in Falluja are trying to rebuild their lives after their city and lives have suffered comparable losses and damage – not from a natural disaster, but from the same military forces that now claim to be helping the people of Aceh. Nothing can expose the US’s opportunistic hypocrisy more clearly.

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