The tsunami: A lost opportunity
By: Kumar Rupasinghe
Sri Lanka has faced two major tragedies since we gained our
independence. A man-made disaster, which has led to three
insurrections, one of which is still ongoing, with preparations for
another Eelam war under way. The other is the tsunami tragedy,
which overwhelmed us beyond our imagination. Its magnitude and
the extent of the human tragedy were overwhelming, where over
35,000 people lost their lives within a matter of 20 minutes. It
displaced over a million people, eliminated the livelihoods and
sustenance of over 200,000 families.
Here was an opportunity for all the peoples of the country to
respond to the common tragedy. Indeed they did. The response
was spontaneous, with people from all communities reaching out
to the other. Food and medicine were sent to affected areas
irrespective of ethnicity. The religious institutions, the media, the
business houses but most of all the ordinary people in towns and
villages responded magnificently.
There are so many stories of human endeavor and courage. The
Army in Ampara was helping the LTTE who were marooned in the
sea, a Buddhist temple, also in Ampara where over 30 monks
were killed many years ago, responded by creating refugee
centers for Tamils and Muslims. It was as if the people found
each other in a new unity.
Internationally, it demonstrated the power of communications
where the tragedy reached the households of millions. They
witnessed how the giant waves swallowed people and houses.
They saw how women were clinging on to the trees and how the
waves sucked them into the sea. They saw children swept away
and washed back onto the land. The images were powerful and
the response magnificent.
People responded by providing money, clothing, medical supplies
and food, so much so that the airport could not handle the traffic.
The collection of money was the largest ever in human history
and for an instant humanity was connected and one with each
other. The then President was away from the country, and as she
returned took control of the situation. She went on the air many
times and stated that the tragedy should be converted into an
opportunity and called upon the people to forget our traditional
differences and work together. It was a wonderful opportunity to
build peace and reconciliation and promote coexistence amongst
all political parties as well. Let us rebuild our nation was the song
of the day.
One year on
After one year, when we reflect on the tragedy of the tsunami in
the context of another tragedy unfolding itself with war drums
beating in the North-East, then we realize the tragedy of political
folly. We lost the opportunity to convert the tsunami tragedy into
The then President was certainly prone to the sound bites and
the media opportunity but her actions with regard the tsunami
tragedy was lacking in any operational vision. As soon as she
arrived in the country she gained control of the entire disaster
relief process and centralized everything under her control. She
set up an operational room where large numbers of NGOs met
once a week to obtain information. The hastily built-up operations
room did not last long and unceremoniously closed after a few
months. Then she called on all political parties to unite in the face
of this common tragedy and formed a task force representing all
political parties. But this taskforce was not serious, there was no
set agenda and the then President’s proclivity to attend meetings
without consideration of time-keeping sealed the task force into
the dustbin of history. There was no consultation and power was
centralized around her.
As time went on, her attention span on the tsunami was minimal,
there were other considerations of state to worry about, such as
extending her term of office by one year!The next operational
disaster was the establishment of TAFREN, a highly centralized
and moribund institution. She had appointed her cronies,
businessmen and hoteliers to a Council, which was mandated to
deal with the tragedy.
This institution did not get off the ground for a long time and the
District Secretariats had to wait for weeks on end for decisions to
be sent to them. Typically, the high officials, including the
Chairman and CEO, did not visit the districts even after six
months of the tragedy.
Instead, they would invite the District Secretaries for
consultations. These captains of industry did not think it was
useful to consult the affected peoples. Large plans were being
put on paper with regards the rehabilitation and construction
phase of the disaster recovery programme. So many billions were
available and why not build whole townships with cricket grounds
too, with the money coming into the country. These plans were all
about buildings, roads and construction sites with lucrative
contracts to our captains of industry. The affected people were
only marginally significant.
Another operational tragedy was a knee-jerk policy decision that
all those affected by the buffer zone could not build their houses
within the 100 metre or 200 metre zone in the North-East. The
then President’s decree was absolute and final. Over 60% of the
people who were affected could now not build their homes, bereft
of obtaining loans from banks and left to fend for themselves.
On the other hand, the decree did not apply to the big hotels or
partially damaged hotels, which were allowed to rebuild their
property. What an extraordinary paradox, where the victims of the
tragedy had to now face double punishment by the denial of their
right to a home of their choice.
There were some amongst the hoteliers who had said that the
tsunami was welcome in that it was slum clearance in a mass
scale! In some of the seminars held at that time, the hotel lobby
was arguing for green zones where tourists could enjoy not only
the sea beaches but large green fields where they could enjoy
their holiday. Everybody knows that there has been a silent
struggle between fisherfolk and hoteliers where, over time, the
hoteliers won many battles by evicting fisher villages to build
hotels. The Tourist Board had drawn up master plans for a dozen
or so tourist zones.
One of these zones was the stretch between Arugam Bay and
Pottuvil, which covered over 20 kilometres. This stretch of land is
one of the prime sites in the world. The residents who lived in the
zone received a circular from the Tourist Board, through the
District Secretary, that the people living within the zone should
leave and compensation would be paid.
The hoteliers associations and the fishermen’s in the zone, at a
meeting with the Chairman of the Tourist Board, were told
unequivocally to leave the zone and that otherwise they would be
evicted. Fortunately, civil society organizations and the people
living in the zone decided to protest, hold demonstrations, and
take legal action. The then Minister then was compelled to
withdraw the circular.
It took almost a year for the then President to reconsider the
buffer zone and to adapt the policy based on the situation on the
ground, based on the topography and environmental needs of
the area. It is a well-known fact that those affected by disasters
would eventually return to their original places of habitation.
Large population transfers of affected people is a complex and
Fishermen who had lived for decades near the sea would not be
enamored by the prospect of living a kilometre away, when their
livelihoods depends on the proximity to the sea. They may even
accept a house provided by the Government but this does not
mean that they would not live near the sea. These simple
sociological facts were not relevant to those who decide on
policy. Even today, large numbers of people in Ampara and
Batticaloa are languishing in temporary shelters because there is
no alternate land available in the vicinity.
It was basically the much vilified and berated NGOs which took up
the challenge. Relief did reach the people in time. Temporary
houses were built very rapidly by international and local
organizations, which provided a temporary respite for the victims.
But these were spontaneous and a result of the commitment of
the Non Governmental sectors that had become a key player in
the recovery process.
The government did not receive the funds it had expected and
had to rely largely on the multi-lateral agencies and the Non
Governmental sectors. The World Bank and ADB responses were
quick, particularly when it came to providing grants and loans for
housing. The Government, on the other hand, had to rely
implicitly on the Non Governmental Organizations and the multi-
lateral agencies for the recovery process.
Regional, ethnic and caste considerations
Another interesting finding is the unequal attention given to
various regions in the country. An important sociological fact is
that it was minority peoples who were mostly affected by the
disaster. The people who reside near the coastal belt of Sri
Lanka are either fishermen (Karava, and Salagama), Christians,
Muslims or Tamils. How did this demographic feature affect the
planning and policy-making of the central government?
Imagine if the disaster struck the Kandy regions, which are
populated by Govigama people. I bet the response would have
been different. Let us examine the facts on the ground. Although
60% of the affected population and land was in the North-East,
these areas were not provided with adequate resources and
support. The areas of the North and East were also a home to
over a million war-affected refugees who have been living in
makeshift shelters for over a decade. Now added to these
numbers were the tsunami victims. If we examine comparative
statistics, it is clear that more houses have been built in the South.
For example, in Hambantota, the MoUs signed with international
non-governmental organisations demonstrates that housing
construction was heavily over-subscribed, with over one
thousand houses in surplus. In comparison, very little housing
construction has started in the North-East.
The tsunami also heightened the ethnic stereotyping and such
stereotyping was present in the government media, as when it
was headline news that Prabhakaran was swept away by the
tsunami and was dead. The Sinhalese diaspora websites were
going to town suggesting that the tsunami would teach a lesson
to the Tamils and that the government should go to war. Some
websites suggested that the tsunami would teach the Muslims a
lesson. Never stated in public but whispered in the corridors was
the notion that the tsunami was slum clearance on a mass scale
and that it would teach the Karava community a lesson.
P-TOMS and its demise
The Joint Mechanism was the then President’s answer to the
neglect of the North East, and over a period of four months the P-
TOMS was being discussed in secret with the LTTE. The P-
TOMS was to provide an apex structure at the national, provincial
and district levels where all stakeholders would be represented.
The LTTE was to have majority representation at the decision-
making bodies at the regional level. The P-TOMS was doomed to
failure. If we examine the Ceasefire Agreement (CFA) its success
was due to the fact that the then Prime Minister Ranil
Wickremesinghe quickly signed the agreement a few weeks after
he assumed power.
With the P-TOMS the then President had executive power but it
took too much time enabling those apposed to the mechanism to
rally forces against it. The politically-manipulated demonstrations
and fasting Buddhist monks with the threat of self-immolation was
witnessed by the entire world community. The failure of the P-
TOMS symbolized to the people of the North-East that the South
was not prepared to concede power sharing even on a limited
issue of humanitarian assistance.
The President and the political order failed miserably in using the
opportunity to promote reconciliation and coexistence and peace
within the country. Rather, it has become the opposite with
internecine political conflict, ethnic rivalry and despair amongst
the people. A wonderful political opportunity was lost through the
short-sighted vision of our political leadership, where the then
President should assume her share of responsibility. This same
attitude of our political leaders also informed the discourse on our
Here again it was a question of short-sighted political
opportunism and political rivalry which has brought the country to
its current state of affairs. This man-made disaster is still not over
and with the coming of the New Year we may have a full-scale war
visiting us again. Such is the story of human folly.