Promises of aid from richer countries to the countries hit by the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 have increased. Australia now heads the list, promising US$800 million. The USA has increased its initial offer of $35 million to $350 million, and on 6 January, embarrassed, dissolved its so-called “core group” of aid-giving US allies in favour of UN coordination.
More aid is good. Millions of people are homeless from the tsunami, and need the resources and equipment that rich countries and their armed forces have available.
But the workings of capitalism and class interest are not frozen or halted by natural disasters. Outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell makes no secret of it that the US government’s purpose in giving aid is to improve its diplomatic position in the region. Reconstruction deals with long-term follow-up contracts for maintenance, upgrading, repairs, and so on, and military links, will be sought as paybacks, as they almost always are for aid.
Australia’s large pay-out is a further step in the drive by successive Australian governments in the last 20 or 30 years to embed Australian capital, once mostly linked with Europe, in the Asian-Pacific region.
Australia, the US, the UN, the EU, and other big donors will want to use the aid as leverage to stabilise the region politically. They may succeed in some cases. But in others the result may be the opposite of what they intend.
In December 1972 an earthquake hit Nicaragua. It killed maybe 10 or 20 thousand people, and made 250,000 of the 400,000 people in Managua, the country’s capital, homeless. Nicaragua’s whole population then was only two million. The entire city centre and all the public utilities in Managua were destroyed.
International aid poured in. And a large proportion of it vanished into the pockets of Nicaragua’s dictator, Anastasio Somoza, and his cronies. Not straight away, when people were preoccupied with grieving, surviving, and rebuilding their individual lives, but over the years, anger at the corruption warmed up Nicaraguans’ resentment of Somoza’s dictatorship into open rebellion.
In 1979 the left-wing Sandinista guerrilla movement overthrew Somoza. Managua city centre was still in ruins, still a visible, everyday indictment of Somoza.
The jolt of natural disaster, big promises of reconstruction, and anger at its being botched, may work similar effects in some countries hit by the tsunami.
In Aceh, at the north-west tip of the Indonesian archipelago, the tsunami killed more than 100,000 people, injured another 100,000, and made 800,000 homeless. The Indonesian government says that those 800,000 will be living in tents for at least a year. The whole population of Aceh is about 4.5 million.
Already before the tsunami, the Indonesian army had been conducting a long war against Acehnese separatists. Foreign reporters and aid workers were excluded from the region.
Now aid workers, foreign troops (mostly Australian and US), and reporters, are crowding into the area. The Indonesian government said on 10 January that it is opening peace talks with the Acehnese separatist movement GAM, but the Indonesian army pointedly announced that it was increasing its forces in Aceh and would continue its war against the GAM.
Indonesian Islamists have threatened to attack Australian troops in Aceh if they do not withdraw soon, saying that they suspect a plot by Australia to help Aceh to separate from Indonesia in the same way that East Timor did. The Indonesian government, apparently under pressure from Indonesian army chiefs, has given all foreign troops a deadline to withdraw by 26 March, and put restrictions on foreign aid workers.
It is very unlikely that Australia, or the US, has any set intention of encouraging Acehnese separation. Australia supported Indonesia’s annexation of East Timor for many years. But, if the upheaval of the tsunami, and Acehnese anger at aid and reconstruction being obstructed by the Indonesian military, reach boiling point, then the opening-up of Aceh to the world enforced by the relief effort may make it much harder for Indonesia to keep control.
Aceh has large oil and gas resources. The oil and gas industry was relatively little damaged by the tsunami. A common pattern in the tsunami-hit countries is that the economic effects, as measured by loss of economic production, have been relatively small, because the areas and people affected are mostly poor, counting for little in the economic statistics. All the more reason to fear that a lot of the aid money will not reach those who need it most.
In Sri Lanka, the tsunami killed 38,000 people (on the latest estimates, as of 17 January), and made about 800,000 homeless. There, the political issue that may be jolted by the tsunami is the long-running conflict with Tamil separatists in the north and east of the island. The immediate effect of the tsunami was to promote cooperation between the Sinhalese majority and Tamils in relief efforts. The government has made a new offer of talks with the Tamil separatists. But conflicts over reconstruction could have the opposite effect.
India, with 16,000 people dead or presumed dead from the tsunami, has rejected offers of foreign aid, saying that it can deal with tsunami relief and reconstruction from its own resources. But it has 400,000 people living in refugee camps as a result of the tsunami.
The Indian government could well be setting itself up for a repeat of what happened in Italy — a country with a notoriously sluggish bureaucracy, but no more so than India’s, and vastly richer — after the earthquake centred on Eboli, southern Italy, in November 1980.
The Italian earthquake killed 2,600 people and made 300,000 homeless. Many countries sent aid. The government became hugely discredited by its slowness and inefficiency in getting the aid out.
According to reports in Time magazine, “shortages in the quake zone gave rise to a ghoulish black-market trade in everything from coffins to mineral water. The result was widespread bitterness, as [president] Pertini discovered… during an inspection tour of the stricken region. ‘How dare you stroll through here?’ shouted a man digging through the rubble in Laviano as the immaculately dressed presidential party approached. ‘This is not a spectacle, you shits!’…
“Relief supplies were painfully slow in reaching the remotest villages. Through sheer incompetence, tons of food, clothing and medicine were lost, stolen or left to rot….
Mafia agents pillaged supply convoys and warehouses, distributing some of the goods to its families and friends and selling the rest to quake victims at exorbitant prices…”
Italy’s Christian Democratic government eventually fell in June 1981. By that time it was hard to tell how much of its discredit was due to the earthquake, and how much to the P2 Masonic Lodge scandal.
The government in Myanmar (Burma) has officially failed to acknowledge that the tsunami affected the country at all. However, since even Burmese opposition groups estimate tsunami deaths in the country at only 86, the impact is probably small enough not to be decisive for the country’s politics.
Globally, the Paris Club of rich countries has offered the tsunami-hit countries a moratorium on their debt payments. None of them want it. The moratorium only means that they have bigger payments too make later, and damages their credit standing in the meantime. Both Indonesia and Sri Lanka, the worst-hit countries, have called for debt write-offs rather than postponement of payments.
The political after-effects of the tsunami are unpredictable. What is certain is that the principles of consistent democracy and support for the efforts of labour movements to win an independent voice in reconstruction must be paramount.