The 10th anniversary of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka, adding to the problems of the ethnic conflict, was commemorated this week unfortunately at a time of another national tragedy – floods and mass displacement of people. Some 700,000 people have been affected by the floods across many parts of Sri Lanka [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Tsunami: Lest we forget …


The 10th anniversary of the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka, adding to the problems of the ethnic conflict, was commemorated this week unfortunately at a time of another national tragedy – floods and mass displacement of people.

Some 700,000 people have been affected by the floods across many parts of Sri Lanka causing untold suffering and deprivation.

The country’s public and social welfare units have been pressed into service and working against all odds to provide temporary shelter, food and clothing. In times like this, civil society groups and NGOs play a big role but the NGO sector has been downsized a lot in the post-2009 era due to a state clampdown on suspicion that they are ‘instruments of destruction’ rather than ‘waves of change’. So the NGO role has been limited in a crisis of serious proportions which would worsen due to the depression (weather movements) over the country which is seen continuing for a few more days. Polling on January 8th is also in jeopardy if the rains continue for the next two weeks with more affected joining shelters and polling forced to be held in these locations.

The rapidly changing weather and the impact of climate change was dealt with in a Business Times editorial only a few weeks ago – December 7, 2014 -, headlined “Chilly in Colombo, warm in Nuwara Eliya” where it was stated that the nip in the air and a cold spell, experienced since mid-November had come early to Sri Lanka. “This year however the weather has been different and this shouldn’t come as a surprise to climate change and global warming specialists,” the commentary said adding that experts have in the past issued several warnings on the impact of climate change and unsustainable development on the country.

However no one including experts would have anticipated the incessant rain and severe flooding for the first time in nearly 50 years in the Anuradhapura town and in many areas in the past week to 10 days.

The natural calamity has to a large extent shifted to second place the Tsunami anniversary and also resulted in more muted Christmas celebrations.

Yet, one cannot forget the outpouring of grief and support by Sri Lankans from all communities in reaching victims of the Tsunami which accounted for more than 30,000 lives.

With the 10th anniversary of the worst natural disaster in the country being marked on Friday with religious ceremonies and other sombre events, there is a need to take stock of post-Tsunami reconstruction and whether lessons were learnt (and followed up) from that experience.

One of the biggest gainers is that the Sri Lankan spirit continues to prosper among the people, and this is seen in how locals have responded magnificently to many other calamities, the recent Meeriyabedde landslide and the current floods’ crisis. The second achievement was the record 56 days in which Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) reconstructed 70 kilometres of the southern railway that was destroyed. Railway unions are now complaining, and rightly so, that despite this skills resource the northern and southern railway rebuilding was handed over to foreign contractors.

There were many post-recovery issues like the ‘Helping Hambantota funds’ fiasco, and weak coordination of the construction of houses and other facilities with some costing more than the others. Whether the coastal belt reservation, which came in as a new rule, was properly enforced remains to be seen.

There were many lessons from that unfortunate experience but have Sri Lankans and governments learnt and corrected the errors, mistakes and omissions of the past?

Tit-for-tat Sri Lankan politics

This is nothing new. For decades, the arrogance of Sri Lankan politicians has got the better of any genuineness or sincerity in serving the people. This fickle kind of politics hasn’t swayed the people and won’t happen this time, too.

Here are two examples of boorish politics which is a contradiction of stated politics:
- An opposition politician repeatedly states ‘we’ll not allow rogues, corrupt businessmen and thugs to join the party. A few days after he made this statement former Commerce Minister Rishad Bathiudeen joins the opposition. The latter has many allegations against him including intimidating the Mannar judge.

- A young ruling party politician, responding to an opposition promise that people with a criminal record won’t be allowed to leave the country in case of an opposition win, says, laughingly (without realising how foolish the response is): “Close the airport? Big deal … we have the Mattala airport.” The response proves that the Mattala airport is controlled by an outside group and not a government authority!

- A middle-aged man, unmoved by the pre-election excitement in the country, had this to say: “Whichever politician comes in, they are all corrupt.”

Statements like ‘we’ll never take rogues, thugs or corrupt politicians’ must be backed by action. The immaturity of politicians and their gung-ho attitude exposes the stupidity of politics.

In a country like Sri Lanka has there ever been an honest politician in the past three decades? Everyone has baggage, everyone has a past!
Clearly both the main contenders are not going to turn away anyone prepared to cross over just because they are corrupt or have a criminal. It’s the numbers game that matter to both sides, the more the merrier and then make it a public spectacle on election platforms. The cheer and ‘Jayawewa’ squads at rallies are either paid supporters or loyalists who can’t see the ‘wood between the trees’.

The opposition has to deliver on the promise of prosecution of the corrupt. What action, for example, would be taken against Bathiudeen and others who have a criminal record? Delivering on the promises is what groups like the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) would be watching. Prosecution against those who broke the law should apply to all crossovers. If they have done wrong, then they must be charged irrespective of their status and the number of votes they bring in. Otherwise a new Sri Lanka would continue the same political culture of impunity (even though to a lesser extent). The opposition – particularly former SLFP ministers – must not forget that.

Apart from the tragedy of floods unfolding in the north-central province, another disturbing image on local TV was that of police kicking and hammering protesting students in Colombo. Students were kicked and beaten with batons. Women in the group were also kicked in an ashamed display of brutal agression by the police. Last week Batticaloa police beat up and stripped protestors in the area in another shameful act. Is this the kind of society children of this and future generations want to live in?

On accountability in delivering on promises, the opposition appears to have a head start. Their referee – not by choice- is fast becoming the JVP. For all its faults and baggage of the past, no one can deny that the JVP is the most incorruptible political group. The JVP has been tactful enough to support the opposition candidate from the outside but still retain its independent identity. In such a position, the party would be able to point fingers at a new government if it doesn’t deliver as promised.

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