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Tsunami: an act of nature and the laws of capitalism

Nick Clarke looks at the global reaction to the tsunami and how capitalism is responsible for the human consequences.

The devastating tsunami that smashed through the coastal areas of countries that ring the Indian Ocean on December 26th exposed the contradictions and contrasts that exist across the globe in the 21st Century. This ‘act of nature’ caused unbelievable destruction and loss of life. The estimate of dead so far is a quarter of a million and still rising. Over 20 countries were affected by the wave itself and at least another 30 have citizens killed or missing. Inevitably these figures will rise as the recovery operation continues. As inevitable, are the facts that the vast majority killed were the poor - urban and rural.

Lack of warning

While the undersea earthquake and the tidal wave it produced are natural phenomena, the terrible human consequences were man-made and should have been prevented. The lack of a warning system in the Indian Ocean ensured the first thousands knew of the event was when the wall of water hit them. Through its monitoring system, the US knew about it three hours in advance and was able to take the necessary precautions to safe guard its strategic military base at Diego Garcia (see Diego Garcia, Britannia waives the rules, Uncle Sam rules the waves). Experts estimate that those three hours would have been enough time to evacuate coastal areas, giving people the time to walk the half mile needed to avoid the immediate impact of the tsunami.

The Pacific Ocean has a warning system in place, because of the vested interest of major imperialist powers such as Japan, Australia and the US. Although tsunamis are not so common in the Indian Ocean, the area around Sumatra is no stranger to geological activity. In recent years, scientists had discussed the need to extend the warning system into the Indian Ocean, but the determination was not there to spend the small amount required.

A further factor that compounded the loss of life was the quality of building construction. There is no better example of this than in Banda Aceh where a mosque survived the impact because it was built of concrete, while the homes that surround it have been flattened. The economic laws of capitalism ensure that housing for the mass of the people is done in the cheapest way possible. In the coastal areas of Indonesia, Thailand and Sri Lanka, the health and safety of the mass of the people is of minimal importance to their ruling classes.

The long term after-effects will continue to fall on the poor. It is they who suffer from starvation, homelessness and absolute impoverishment.

Global reaction

In its aftermath, what has been the global reaction?

There are two answers to this question – one inspiring, the other contemptible. On the positive side, it has been inspirational that ordinary people across the planethave risen to the challenge to show that human nature is not just selfish and self-interested. Solidarity has been shown by Sri Lankans, Thais and Indonesians, who were not directly effected by the tsunami, taking food, water and bedding to their fellow citizens within hours of the event. In the Western world millions of pounds, dollars and euros have been donated by some of those least able to afford it.

Contrast this with the pitiful amounts offered by the richest governments in the world in the first few days after the event. The Blair and Bush governments have been continually in arrears of the amounts raised by public donations from their electorate. What they also seem to forget is the amount they pledge is also our money, raised thorough taxation.

A great deal of concern has been created that the money being pledged by the Labour government is not new aid money, but money that is being taken out of the already-existing aid budget. This will divert money away from equally desperate areas such as sub-Saharan Africa with its own imperialist-inspired devastation from civil war, starvation and the Aids epidemic. While the likes of Colin Powell, Jeb Bush and Jack Straw make solemn and well publicised visits to the region, the system they represent continues to entrench the poverty and inequality that haunts the world. Organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the G8 with their global dominance perpetuate the current world order. This is reinforced by the irony of having the World Bank, a major conspirator in this network, playing a key role in distributing aid! Blair, consistently supported by Gordon Brown, and Bush are prepared to write blank cheques when it comes to the Iraqi occupation and the destruction and thousands of avoidable deaths they are responsible for. When it comes topreventing death and alleviating suffering they are rather more miserly.

Debt relief: no long term solution

There has also been a widespread call for debt relief, ranging from the suspension of interest repayments to cancellation of all debts of those developing countries affected by the tsunami. The terms of the loans given to these countries have been dictated by imperialism’s interests - to buy goods from the donor country, to pay extortionate interest rates, and to undergo economic ‘restructuring’ etc. While socialists are not against the writing off of such debts, we are aware that this is not the solution. If a clean slate were to be given to regimes, such as Indonesia, it would enabling its ruling class to take out new loans to buy weaponry and re-arm for use against oppressed groups and democratic and working class forces in their own country. Music to the arms industry’s ears!

Reinforcing existing power structures

Likewise with charity. Many of those wanting to show solidarity with their fellow human beings have donated to charities, through the Disasters Emergency Committee. These charities are promoted and sponsored by the host government. In the affected area, most of them have to operate under the guidance or supervision of the local military command. So, for example, in Aceh we see aid agencies refused access, by the Indonesian Army, to areas of the region that are under the control of the Free Aceh Movement. A similar situation also exists in Sri Lanka with the Tamil Tigers. So those most ‘worthy’ of aid, and at the front of the queue, are those who stay quiet and do not challenge the ruling class and the existing power structures.

Socialists and working class organisations should give material solidarity to like-minded organisations in the affected area. They can ensure, though accountability and openness, that aid gets to where, and whom, it is most needed. So that it does not just reinforce the existing ruling elite and the capitalist system they defend.

Nick Clarke