In the wake of the tsunami, deception and discrimination
Asian Human Rights Commission & Asian Legal Resource Centre
The tsunami that hit countries around the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004 brought misery to all living along its coasts. Without exception, the human suffering brought by the tsunami was deeply felt in every affected area. Sadly, with such suffering comes a resurgence of human prejudice, opportunism, deception and mismanagement.
Such negative qualities are not new to the elites of Asia, particularly when dealing with foreigners. In Sri Lankan folklore, for instance, one expression relates 'the way the Portuguese went to Kotte'. This story, known to every child, tells how the Portuguese, who were occupying part of the coastal area, wanted to meet the local king. The Portuguese envoys were blindfolded and taken around for many days before reaching the place where they finally met the ruler. What they were not aware of was that the place of the meeting was in fact only a short distance from where they had originally set off. Though this may have been a security measure, it also illustrates the knowledge gained by a people, particularly the elite, who lived under colonial rule for over 500 years. Deceiving foreigners was then a means of survival as well as of acquiring wealth. The history of nearly all wealthy established Asian families is one of deception of foreigners. In fact, it is a fine art among them.
Today, faced with the worst natural disaster to have happened in recent memory, which has brought much sympathy and support from all over the world to the Indian Ocean coastline old habits seem to have risen again. Despite the tremendous amount of international assistance, huge numbers of victims see that little has changed. In many places, some choice words and phrases-'orphans', 'devastated families', 'impoverished fisherfolk'-were all that was needed to have the world move in an unprecedented manner. Indeed, numerous children lost either or both parents, and other relatives; boats, houses, schools and a vast quantity of personal possessions were destroyed on an unprecedented scale. Money and in-kind assistance poured in. But the complaint of many is that nothing has reached them, except perhaps a few food parcels. Many are living in camps without any encouragement that soon they will be able to return to their normal lives. Tales of misery continue to emerge from everywhere.
The two states of southern India worst hit by the tsunami are a case in point. Relief distribution has been mismanaged and inadequate. In Pondichery, just eight kilogrammes of rice and 12,000 rupees for house reconstruction was being given to each family. In Tamil Nadu, although the rice distributed was about 60 kilogrammes per family, the amount paid for reconstruction was just 8000 rupees. Some rice was reportedly infested with worms and unfit for human consumption. There was a lack of coordination between the operations of the non-governmental agencies and different government organs. Assistance in some areas overlapped whereas other affected places were completely ignored. Relief camps in some places were shut down after only about three days, and victims left to fend for themselves. Many remote villages were being totally neglected due to caste discrimination and political allegiances.
Relief supplies in India have been distributed on the basis of caste. In Dalit villages such as Kadapakuppam and Pattipulam of Kachipuram district, Tamil Nadu, at the time of writing no relief had yet been received. This is despite 175 families in Kadapakuppam and 280 families in Pattipulam having felt the brunt of the disaster. Likewise, in Pannanthittu village of Chidambaram Thaluka, Tamil Nadu, all 150 families affected by the tsunami had been denied aid. Villagers in MGR Thattu, meanwhile, protested that they had received very little.
Caste-based discrimination has also been witnessed in other areas of relief operations. Dalits have been brought in from neighbouring regions to handle dead bodies, as they are 'traditionally' obliged to do, without any efforts to systematically record the numbers of dead and their identities, in order that families might later claim compensation. Community kitchens, established to distribute food to victims, have been divided into two: one for caste Indians and one for Dalits; upper castes would not consume food prepared by Dalits, or eat together with them. It is a sad reality that even in times of extreme necessity caste prejudice still dominates social exchanges. Despite caste discrimination being a violation of international human rights standards and domestic law, it continues to exercise a debilitating influence on the lives of millions in India daily, under any circumstances.
Even the dead, it seems, have become a target for exploitation in India. The government payment of 100,000 rupees to each family per deceased member was a welcome step. However, the money was delivered as cheques, often to illiterate people. This manner of payment was ripe for abuse. Word soon came out that unscrupulous individuals were promising survivors to help cash the cheques, and then disappear with the money. Others with influence and local know-how have used the opportunity to claim money for deceased persons to whom they are not actually related.
By contrast, in Thailand a sturdy impression was given of fast relief and reconstruction efforts. However, there too, relief efforts were uneven, and discrimination against large numbers of Burmese migrants working in the affected areas also had a negative effect on the management of the disaster as a whole. At least 120,000 registered Burmese migrant workers were in parts of Thailand hit by the tsunami; the total number of Burmese, accounting for estimates of illegal persons, may have been double that figure. It was estimated in mid-January that as a result of the tsunami about 2300 Burmese workers were killed, 4000 were missing, and over 3000 were taking shelter at abandoned construction sites without any humanitarian assistance, most in Phangnga and Phuket provinces. Many of the survivors had lost all of their possessions, including work permit cards.
While the authorities were quick to assist Thai citizens and foreign
tourists in the affected areas by giving shelter, basic facilities,
medical attention, food, financial assistance, and doing DNA checks to
find missing relatives, the Burmese workers were excluded from these
operations. Despite the Ministry of Labour announcing that the
government would provide 20,000 baht in compensation for a death, and
2000 baht in aid money for each unemployed Burmese worker, as well as
assistance in DNA checks to find missing relatives, no action was
initially taken. Officials announced that only those with work permits
would be allowed access to humanitarian aid, but it was reported that
even these persons faced great difficulties in obtaining support.
Meanwhile, the authorities began rapidly rounding up Burmese workers and forcibly deporting them to their country of origin, where the government had in its usual manner barely even recognised that a disaster had occurred; certainly, it informed outsiders, there was nothing going on that it could not handle by itself. On the pretext of cutting down on post-tsunami crime, large numbers of migrants in Thailand were arrested and swiftly sent back to the border. These included legal workers who had lost their registration cards during the tsunami or whose employers were killed; most did not receive any compensation or back pay before being sent. At the border, reports have it that reluctant Burmese authorities were readmitting only a few of the deported persons, again on the ground that they had no valid documentation. The consequence was to force a large number of Burmese migrant workers into hiding, under miserable conditions.
After considerable domestic and international protest over the treatment of the affected Burmese, including intervention by the Asian Human Rights Commission, international agencies stepped up their efforts to address the problems, and government authorities went some way to relaxing the discriminatory relief policies. Arrests and deportations ceased. However, only small numbers of the affected migrant workers were still getting access to assistance, due to continued fears over deportation: most from small local organisations, and in some instances, the Thai Red Cross Society. The process of re-registration of Burmese workers was also being delayed due to mismanagement and inefficient district bureaucracy. By the end of January, no effective database had been set up for re-registration, and no information made available to migrants. A lack of Burmese-Thai interpreters was also hampering efforts. Local human rights groups advised authorities to set up a desk at each district office to deal solely with the re-issuing of identity cards and work permits to migrant workers. They also suggested them to hire more interpreters and establish an on-line database system to speed up the process.
The enormous task of identifying all the recovered bodies of the dead in Thailand was hampered for administrative reasons from the start, and into February was continuing to face difficulties. The discrimination against Burmese migrants was one problem, as the Burmese victims did not dare approach the authorities to report and identify lost friends and relatives. Perhaps one thousand of the bodies lying unidentified at the time were believed to be those of Burmese, for whom no one had come forward.
More seriously, the police force used the tsunami to undermine the important role of the Forensic Science Institute in Thailand. The institute was established because of a recognised need for an independent and professional body to identify and assess dead bodies in Thailand. It is particularly necessary in order to act as a checking measure against uncontrolled killings by the police, and deliberately manipulated or botched autopsies under conventional procedure. So it is not surprising that the police view the institute with hostility, but it was most unfortunate that they sought to use the recovery operations from this natural disaster as an opportunity to reassert control over forensic procedures. After the institute initiated all the work of identifying bodies, the police succeeded in wresting control of enquiries. On the surface, the dispute was about the most efficient means by which the very large number of victims could be properly identified. In reality it was about the power over forensic science in Thailand as a whole. More troubling still are recent allegations that police have kidnapped volunteers who have worked with the institute during the tsunami recovery effort and have interrogated them on its work. At a time when the country has had a sense of unity in its efforts to cope with the disaster, such news is likely to demoralise many.
Another country where demoralisation has been caused not only by the effect of the tsunami itself but also by subsequent government action or inaction is Sri Lanka. In late January, the Asian Human Rights Commission raised concerns over growing deception in the use of funds received from all over the world for the relief and rehabilitation of tsunami victims there. It pointed to the fact that in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami the government armed itself with a declaration of emergency. This step was taken not to address the tsunami itself, which had already passed, but ostensibly to force through emergency relief in the face of possible corruption and abuse of power.
Sri Lanka has a bad record for gross human rights abuses during emergencies declared by presidential proclamation, so the step is very dangerous. It is unclear how the problems caused by a natural disaster can be solved by changing evidentiary laws regarding inadmissibility of confessions, allowing the president to appoint police officers directly, giving the armed forces powers of arrest and detention and the right to make searches and break into premises without warrants, and imposing the death sentence in certain cases. In actual fact, an effective response to the tsunami requires a high level of cooperation among people and a high level of transparency and accountability on the part of the government. Freedom of speech and association are vital at such times. Imposing emergency powers on people who have lost everything will only create further obstacles to their achieving a degree of security and stability in their lives. As the presidential powers obtained under such proclamations have in the past also been used to bypass the parliament and suspend the powers of courts, thereby creating enduring problems for the rule of law in Sri Lanka, the Asian Legal Resource Centre has urged that they be suspended quickly.
During January and February, the Asian Human Rights Commission also pointed to a number of other areas of concern regarding tsunami relief operations in Sri Lanka: among these, that bureaucratic hurdles have been preventing the receipt of relief supplies. More than 100 container loads of relief goods were reportedly lying idle in the Colombo port due to heavy customs duties, other charges and needless procedures. Inefficient administration has also been posing different problems at the local level. Relief assistance and rations have been distributed through local cooperative stores, with only a handful of staff to deal with thousands of people. They have been unable to cope with the demand, and have been giving supplies simply on the basis of first come first served. Due to this people have been forced to start queuing up before dawn in the hope of getting what is due to them. The reopening of schools has been significantly and unnecessarily delayed, exacerbating and prolonging the trauma felt by child victims of the tragedy. Malpractices by the police in certain areas have also been reported, such as delayed issuance of death certificates and confiscation of ration cards, apparently to obtain and sell the rations. At the end of January, a statement by the World Forum of Fisher People ran in part as follows:
Even after a month… shattered houses are still kept untouched. The victims are in different camps without any proper cover from rain. No cleaning up has started. We are reading a lot [about] spending enormous money under the head of Rural Development (US0m), Rail Transport (190m), Water Supply and Sanitation (150m) Port Development (50m), HRD and Social Services (135m), Housing and Townships (400m), Industrial Development (35m), Tourism (20m) Private Enterprise Development (50m), and the grand total is US00m. Out of this, can the government clearly say how much will go to the hands of the victims? Can the government say how much of this will go directly for the housing, infrastructure development, fishing development for the victims? Please explain this very clearly.
We want to make it very clear that the Sri Lankan Government was in total bankruptcy before the tsunami. After the tsunami the government has become very rich at the expense of the tsunami victims. The Sri Lankan Government has the moral responsibility before the whole world that it rise up to the occasion…
All the victims in Asia will be united to see that the money that comes to the governments and NGOs comes to the development of the tsunami victims. Everybody who receives money should publish the income and expenditure before the victims. This is a must.
The Asian Human Rights Commission has supported this assertion, as indeed do affected persons themselves. During the past month, assemblies of victims in Sri Lanka have gathered to express concerns over steps taken by the government to prevent them rebuilding close to the sea. While the rationale for not rebuilding in high-risk areas is accepted, the affected persons find it extremely difficult to trust government promises that they will get alternative land and new houses. At the time of writing, nothing has been forthcoming: such are the circumstances under which governments and international organisations have strong obligations to ensure that the money donated in fact be used for the stipulated purposes. The UN Secretary General has wisely suggested that with the enormous amounts involved, a special representative should be appointed to look into the manner in which money given for tsunami relief, rehabilitation and reconstruction is spent. It is suggested that such a representative should look into the monies allocated not only to governments but also to UN agencies.
Above all else, international agencies should not be afraid to join with local people and tackle the problems associated with the nature of civil administrations and political leadership in the affected countries. The effective delivery of assistance depends upon the role played by these domestic agencies. The solving of internal problems should not be left to run its course: rather, international and community pressure must push the established order to change its practices where it is generating more problems than it is solving. Purely compassionate actions to help the victims will not suffice; strong efforts to get civil administrations to act appropriately are essential. Without them, the enormous goodwill that has followed the tsunami may also become its victim, not by way of the water itself, but by way of civil administrations either unable or unwilling to cope with the immense tasks at hand.