Tsunami Still Taking Toll: Indonesian Military Combines Relief with Executing Rebels, while Sri Lankan Fishermen Face Loss of Livelihood

Tsunami Still Taking Toll: Indonesian Military Combines Relief with Executing Rebels, while Sri Lankan Fishermen Face Loss of Livelihood

Typical Sri Lankan fishing boats. Much of this fleet was damaged or destroyed in the tsunami.

UCLA professors say relief efforts hurt by prexisting conditions in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

"The tsunami damaged 65 percent of the nation's fishing fleet . . . including 30,000 registered boats."


Professors Geoffrey Robinson and Nandini Gunewardena addressed a small audience at UCLA on Monday evening, February 7, about tsunami relief in the context of Indonesian and Sri Lankan history. The event, called "Before the Wave," was organized by the UCLA California Student Sustainability Coalition and UNICEF at UCLA and held in the Public Policy building.

Human Rights and Humanitarian Need in Aceh

Robinson, associate professor of history and director of the UCLA Center for Southeast Asian Studies, outlined the recent history of Indonesia and of Aceh province in particular. The death toll in Indonesia is over 200,000, by far the most deaths in any country. While the tsunami had a devastating effect, Robinson said, "much of what is going on is man-made."

The Indonesian military (TNI), which has a long record of human rights abuses, is using the disaster as a cover for systematic executions and torture of individuals who are part of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM), said Robinson. TNI has admitted to killing 100 and detaining several hundred GAM members in the weeks after the tsunami.

"Some say GAM is the essence of Aceh's problem -- the real problem is not the existence of an independence movement," said Robinson. Rather, he insisted, the problem is the violent counter-insurgency program TNI pursues. "Even after we saw the gradual democratization of Jakarta, in Aceh the war continued." In 1992, the Indonesian government declared a state of emergency in Aceh and increased its military presence in the region. "Under martial law, [Aceh] was explicitly sealed off to journalists, sealed off to human rights workers."

The continuation of this program presents many problems for relief efforts. "Why was it that after the tsunami hit, the media was telling us that the worst areas hit were Sri Lanka and Thailand?" Robinson asked. He said that the reason for the delay of news was that there were no journalists and no foreign tourists or international organizations in the province. This, Robinson said, presents the first problem for relief workers: a lack of infrastructure and information in the area.

Compounding these problems, TNI's history of abuse, including the 1999 massacre in East Timor, has made it difficult for them to distribute aid. Indonesia's military is the primary mechanism for relief, but Robinson said, "Many Acehnese, arguably most Acehnese, are mistrustful and fearful of soldiers. That experience of 30 years of brutality unquestionably hinders relief."

TNI also intimidates aid workers, said Robinson. As an example, he said that two weeks earlier a human rights worker was detained and beaten by the military; he was accused of stealing supplies. While the Indonesia government opened Aceh to foreigners in the first few weeks after the disaster, they now require military escorts for foreigners who want to travel into the countryside where most of the damage occurred.

Robinson said this policy was made in the name of protecting humanitarian workers from GAM militants. GAM, however, wants foreigners in the area to witness TNI's counterinsurgency violence. The policy, Robinson said, is actually in place to hide TNI's human rights abuses.

"It provides a very dangerous opportunity for the Indonesian military to attack its enemies under the cover of humanitarian need," said Robinson.

Robinson also warned that the United States might use this humanitarian crisis as reason to restore military ties with Indonesia. Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz both expressed interest in renewing ties, a move that Robinson said would overlook the human rights violations TNI has been committing for many years.

Engaging Sri Lankan Communities

Gunewardena, professor of International Development Studies and anthropology, spoke about devastation and challenges to providing relief in Sri Lanka. The majority of damage occurred on the eastern and southern coasts of the island-nation. 46,000 died, 960,000 lost family members or their homes, and 400,000 lost their jobs. Most of the deaths were women and children, and reports are trickling in of surviving men becoming alcoholics or committing suicide.

Before the tsunami, however, Sri Lanka was engaged in a twenty-year-long civil war between the government and the Tamil Tigers (LTTE). A tenuous ceasefire was called in 2002, but the fighting has left many Sri Lankans in poverty and without the means to bounce back from the devastation.

Fishing communities, without reserves or savings, were the hardest hit. Fisherman lost all of their assets, which mainly consisted of boats and tools, said Gunewardena. "The tsunami damaged 65 percent of the nation's fishing fleet," she said, including 30,000 registered boats. The fishing industry in Sri Lanka, which provides a significant portion of the Sri Lankan diet, was also hard hit.

Cultural issues also make relief efforts for these communities difficult. "Fishing communities also represent a caste group," Gunewardena said. This caste group, not to be confused with the Hindu caste system, is based upon labor rather than income or birth. Within the caste, however, "the one thing they rely on is kin networks," said Gunewardena, networks that have been destroyed by the tsunami. Fisherman are usually in financially precarious situations to begin with; they are small-scale businesses and rely on the sales of their daily catches. Extended families historically helped fisherman survive times of financial trouble. Without that family, survival becomes very difficult.

The Sri Lankan government has also ruled that homes cannot be reconstructed closer than 100 yards from the beach. These fisherman, said Gunewardena, were essentially squatters near the ocean and now have no place to rebuild because they never owned land.

Yet the Sri Lankan government has few resources to help them rebuild. "One of the biggest overarching concerns is how the reconstruction efforts can be sustained as donor funds are exhausted," said Gunewardena. Sri Lanka has a large external debt and pays interest which prevents the government from pouring money into reconstruction.

News of victims protesting that they are not receiving aid is trickling in. Gunewardena explained the news as a result of the fact that "local communities tend to be stratified" along caste, class, and ethnic lines. Gunewardena said that relief organizers must be vigilant not to "contribute to preexisting forms of marginalization."

She suggested that a participatory approach to relief will help ameliorate inequities: "Participation should be more than taking up an invitation extended by someone else." Gunewardena encouraged donations to and relief by small, local NGOs who can take advantage of existing cultural norms and engage communities to help themselves.

"The tendency is for the well-meaning individual to go in and have a fix, have a recipe," she said. This type of relief effort, however, does not recognize the homogenous nature of Sri Lankan communities.

Published: Thursday, February 10, 2005