This article appeared in Ceylon Today on Tuesday December 30 2014.
I wonder what little Liam Cutler in Melksham, Wiltshire, would think of the current politicking for the presidency in Sri Lanka. Well, Liam is not so little any more. Ten years have passed since Liam’s heart was broken by the tsunami. He must be around seventeen years old by now. Have things improved in Sri Lanka since Liam decided to do something positive at the age of ten?
I wrote in these pages recently about the art of giving and the nature of the gift relationship. Reactions to the tsunami ten years ago highlighted many aspects of the gift of giving and the relationship between people and politicians. It is particularly instructive to examine the actions ten years ago of two politicians who are still in conflict today – Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The feel-bad effect of the disaster triggered a feel-good factor internationally as people rushed to make donations for the relief effort. Tessa Doe is a friend I met on a tour of South India in 1994. Tessa and Frank live in rural Wiltshire in the UK. In 2005, Tessa sent me some cuttings from her local newspapers showing what the residents of Seend Cleeve and Melksham were doing in response to the disaster.
Melksham resident Pete King took it upon himself to travel to Sri Lanka to deliver and distribute 700 kilos worth of supplies from Wiltshire hospitals and pharmacies which Krishan Perera of Sri Lankan Airlines agreed to carry free of charge (the same man was very helpful to us when we transported our three cats from Ireland to Sri Lanka). Pete King reported: “Over the last two weeks I have seen many individuals in Sri Lanka doing their bit … every little effort helps”.
Seend Cleeve village primary school organized bring-and-buy sales. One pupil, Hannah, was in Thailand when the tsunami struck but was safely inland. Many of the pupils expressed empathy with those who were suffering. Jenny said: “It’s amazing how the whole world is sticking together and sending money to the places worst affected. Even if people didn’t get killed themselves, they probably have lost family and have nothing”.
Seven-year-old Liam Cutler was so upset by his Aunt Sara Mapp’s experience in Thailand that, according to his mother, he “stayed very quiet. He always keeps his worries inside him.” He asked to speak to a teacher in private and came up with the idea of setting up a cake stall for the benefit of tsunami victims. “He has organized the whole thing himself. He got most of the parents making cakes and the rest of his class making posters to advertise the event.”
A group called Mums of Melksham held an auction of men in the Assembly Rooms. Sheila Ward said: “I decided to get involved after seeing mothers and children separated because of the tsunami. It must be horrendous and I can’t bear to think what it would be like to rebuild your life without your children”.
I was particularly touched to read about the children at St Michael’s school who raised money for the appeal by decorating and selling heart-shaped biscuits. The interesting thing about this was that the children were encouraged to undertake this task quietly with soothing music and to meditate upon the suffering of those whose lives were devastated by the tsunami. Headteacher Beverley Martin said: “We wanted the children to think about what it would be like to have no clean water, no food, nowhere to live, no clothes and, most importantly, no family left.”
Feelgood even in Sri Lanka.
Amid all the suffering, there was a hint of a feel-good factor even in war-battered Sri Lanka itself. Unlikely partners were working together, including combatants on both sides of the conflict. There was initially hope that there might be harmony with the Tamil Tigers as everyone pulled together to cope with the tragedy. Alas, this was not to last long. There was a fragile cease-fire in operation at the time but the Tigers were using this to re-arm, re-group and to impose even more securely their grip on the territories they held.
Susantha Goonathilake wrote in his book, Recolonization, about the influence of foreign NGOs on Sri Lanka: “Those affected by the tsunami rushed into temples where they were received with warmth. These temples along the coast became havens of shelter, not only for Buddhists, but also for Hindus, Muslims and Christians. There are innumerable stories of the incredible generosity of these temples. Monks gave up their robes to bandage victims, looked after their children and babies, fed them from whatever little provisions they had, and comforted them. Illustrative of the genuineness of this response was the remote Eastern province temple of Arantalawa. Here LTTE death squads had once hacked to death young Buddhist monks. Now Arantalawa opened itself to nearly 1,000 refugees, most of whom were from the Tamil community and may well have included the very assassins who had hacked the young Buddhist monks”.
Even within the government itself, harmony was short-lived. The immediate state response was weak and the government took some time took some time to set up a co-ordinating committee. Despite government failings, an effective, spontaneous immediate response was organized locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings, and tents. Communities and groups cooperated across barriers that had divided them for decades. Sinhalese and Muslims wanted to go to the North and East with supplies but the LTTE refused to allow them into areas under its control. Up-Country Tamils went to the South to help Sinhalese victims.
Role of the Army
Today there are concerns about the role of the army in various aspects of life after the victory over the LTTE. After the tsunami, twenty thousand soldiers were deployed in government-controlled areas to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order after sporadic looting. It is probably inaccurate to call this looting. As in the immediate aftermath of Katrina people had to get supplies from somewhere and normal conditions did not pertain.
Some security personnel lost their lives trying to save civilians during the tsunami. Tamils in refugee camps flocked around soldiers without any fear. Members of the armed forces even helped Tiger cadres. The LTTE too helped save affected security personnel. On our first visit to Hambantota in January 2005, Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit. Cynics had warned us that soldiers would pilfer relief supplies. Our experience was that soldiers refused to take supplies from us saying that people would appreciate receiving gifts from our hands while looking us in the eyes.
On our visit three months after the tsunami, there was no sign of the army.
CBK set up the Post Tsunami Operation Management Structure (P-TOMS), the joint mechanism, after a Sri Lanka donor conference in mid-May indicated that much of the promised $S3 billion in aid depended on a resumption of peace talks. Many critics saw this as in irreversible step towards conceding Eelam. Wimal Weerawansa said the JVP would “defeat this betrayal with the sacred intention of safeguarding our motherland”. He accused Kumaratunga of taking the decision without informing her coalition partners.
Part of the reason for the muddled initial state response was the rivalry, which continues to this day, between CBK and MR. As prime minister, MR set action in progress from Colombo in the absence of CBK who was on holiday in Britain. According to DBS Jeyaraj, as soon as she returned, she set about unpicking his plans and placing all reconstruction and relief under presidential control. Mangala Samaraweera has his own view of MR’s contribution.
Worldwide sympathy for the victims meant that funds were flowing into the country. However, CBK decided to go for over-ambitious plans, which excluded not only input from victims but also input from the rest of the government or the opposition parties or politicians from affected areas. Government spokesman, Tilak Ranaviraja, admitted to the media that after five weeks 70% of the tsunami victims in government-controlled areas had not received government aid.
Speaking recently at an event at Crow Island in Colombo to mark the tenth anniversary of the tsunami, CBK recalled that soon after the tsunami, political parties had united for one cause and this ensured the country recovered from the disaster within a short period of time. She said that the unity among the several political parties backing Maithripala Sirisena for President guaranteed they could win.
Mangala Samaraweera, who once served as MR’s foreign minister, previously served as CBK’s media advisor, and previously planned Sarath Fonseka’s unsuccessful presidential campaign, also brought up the tsunami in the current election campaign. In a speech on December 26 2014, he gave CBK credit for the public’s generosity. “Ordinary citizens across the world stood in solidarity with us, and on then President Chandrika Kumaratunga’s request gave generously of their resources and time.” He contrasted this with “a man who is contesting to be President of this country does not care for people’s suffering. He has consistently put his own private gain above the people’s pain.”
Ten years ago, the tsunami generated harmony and compassion. Today it is exploited for political advantage. I wonder what Liam Cutler, Pete King, Sheila Ward and Beverley Martin in Wiltshire, would think.