The 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

The Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and India, killing nearly 300,000 people.

The earthquake that caused the Indian Ocean tsunami took place on December 26, 2004, but the extent of the event and the scale of the devastation took days to comprehend. The quake was the third most powerful ever recorded, registering between 9.1 and 9.3 on the Richter scale, with its epicenter just west of the Indonesian island of Sumatra.

Indonesia was hardest hit, followed by Sri Lanka, India and Thailand. Nearly 300,000 people died in 14 countries around the Indian Ocean from the flooding and devastation caused by the surge of water that reached 10 meters (33 feet) in some coastal areas.

The earthquake and tsunami were among the greatest natural catastrophes in recorded history. But the toll of death and destruction was not just the result of blind natural forces. As the WSWS emphasized in its coverage of the disasters, societal factors were central to the scale of the devastation. Man-made poverty, above all, was the primary cause of the loss of life.

The WSWS provided on-the-spot coverage as the people of the region began efforts to rescue survivors and recover the dead, particularly in Sri Lanka, where members of the Socialist Equality Party traveled to the eastern and southern coastal regions and reported on the efforts of thousands of volunteers, including many health care workers. There was also on-the-spot reporting in southern India.

The response of workers to the plight of other workers in need was striking. The tragedy cut across racial and religious differences and across national boundaries. In contrast to the generous response of ordinary people around the world regardless of racial and religious divisions, national governments either displayed apathy and indifference or used the disaster to pursue their own interests.

In Sri Lanka, President Chandrika Kumaratunga imposed military rule on 12 of the country’s 22 provinces.

In Indonesia, the military authorities sought to take advantage of the chaos caused by the quake and tidal wave to launch an offensive against separatist rebels in the province of Aceh, the northern tip of Sumatra. In Thailand, the government of billionaire Thaksin Shinawatra prioritized the lucrative tourist industry while neglecting poor fishing villages. The government of India blocked foreign aid to the low-lying Andaman and Nicobar Islands, where 80 percent of the population was rendered homeless, in an effort to demonstrate its standing as the dominant power in the region.

As for the imperialist powers, they offered only a pittance in aid, and even this was prompted by considerations of foreign policy and propaganda, not human solidarity. US Secretary of State Colin Powell expressed the hope that deploying US military assets in a predominately Muslim-populated region “dries up those pools of dissatisfaction that might give rise to terrorist activity.”

The Australian government of right-wing Prime Minister John Howard directed its aid efforts through a bilateral pact with the Indonesian regime of ex-general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. The agreement provided that the bulk of the funds would go to Australian corporations.

The disaster was made worse by the fact that the Indian Ocean had no tsunami early warning system, in contrast to the Pacific, which has had one for 40 years. The need for such a system was well known and, as the WSWS noted, “The cost of establishing a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean is a pittance compared to the huge profits amassed by US, European and Japanese corporations through the exploitation of the region’s cheap labor.” The WSWS and the SEP in Sri Lanka and Australia held public meetings on both the causes and consequences of the tsunami and the political issues that it raised.

At a national membership meeting in Ann Arbor, Michigan, on January 8-9, 2005, WSWS Editorial Board Chairman David North began a report, “Marxism, the International Committee and the science of perspective: an historical analysis of the crisis of American imperialism,” by noting the immense outpouring of empathy all over the world for the tragedy.

Referring to the empty comments in the media about the “inscrutability of nature's awful purpose,” as supposedly revealed in the tsunami disaster, North noted:

The impact of the tsunami exposes in an especially graphic manner the irrational nature of capitalism, its inability to develop the productive forces in a manner that raises the living standards of the broad masses of the people. The media enthuses about the “Asian miracle,” but the fact of the matter is that the benefits of the infusion of capital into the region over the past decade are showered upon small privileged elites. Hundreds of millions of Asia’s people live in shanties that, even under the most favorable climatic conditions, afford scant protection from the elements.

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