the birds of passage fly in
It was inevitable. For one week now the news media here have been
dominated by a single event. The seaquake last Sunday that caused
unprecedented death and destruction to so many Indian Ocean countries
was just the stuff of television.
was Hollywood imagination suddenly turned into reality. It was,
in a sense, surreal, as images of waves and waves of seawater disdainfully
sweeping almost everything before them, were brought right into
our sitting rooms minute after minute, hour after hour.
was unbelievable. In the past television usually recorded only the
aftermath of such natural disasters. In the first couple of days
that is what we saw.
soon amateur video recordings made by foreign holidaymakers in Sri
Lanka, Thailand and Indonesia began to reach international television
networks that naturally telecast them right into our homes.
images of people, foreign and local, being swept away by the raging
seas, of children clinging hopefully to whatever debris was floating
by, of the last desperate attempts of men, women and children to
save their lives as torrents of water swallowed them, will remain
etched in the memories of those who saw them.
of miles away those tragic moments seemed as real and frightening
as though one was really where it happened. If we have deluded ourselves
that man has tamed nature and controlled it, here was living proof
of the awesome power of nature against which man seemed but a infinitesimal
being, tossed aside like a rag doll.
those images of nature's destructive power shown on almost every
TV channel here came the stories of individuals and families and
how they survived. Some were tales of heroism, some of sheer tragedy.
Some said prayers to whichever deity they believed. Others were
too shocked for prayer, just thankful for being alive.
as I write this, three TV channels are bringing the same old scenes
of death, destruction and desperation with a monotony that is fast
turning the first emotions of shock, sadness and helplessness into
a simmering anger.
because such repetition is a minute-by-minute reminder of the human
suffering and the tragedy that has befallen the region, but because
of the media's struggle to keep the story alive until perhaps the
last western citizen is accounted for.
western media, and television in particular, thrive on calamities
and disasters, natural or man-made. In this commercialised world
where competition is fierce, the media are no different from any
other commodity in the market place.
until the last ounce of interest is squeezed out of this tragedy
and expenses of keeping camera crews and journalists on the ground
are affordable, we will see the same old images with a few new sound
bites and a few new faces on our TV screens.
newspapers, of course, will find it more difficult to compete with
TV and so their correspondents who are based in the countries affected
or have had to be parachuted in, will naturally have to look for
stories that have not been told or to blow them up to justify their
have no interest in and little consideration for the peoples of
the countries that have suffered what Kofi Annan just called this
unprecedented global catastrophe.
what is it that the western media in Sri Lanka for a week or ten
days at the most, will look for? It will come as little surprise
if very soon we hear or read that aid sent by western governments
and charity organisations is piling up, that the government has
failed to cope with the situation and assistance is not reaching
the people that need it.
political establishment and bureaucracy have on previous occasions
been remiss in acting quickly and expeditiously in distributing
foreign aid. How often have we heard of equipment sent by donors
been found rotting in their packages or discarded and foreign aid
often have we heard of corrupt politicians and officials fiddling
foreign funds. But these have come from the local media that have
had the time to research their stories over a period of time.
the foreign journalist parachuted does not have that luxury. So
if he cannot find a breakdown in the distribution of aid, he will
exploit its political dimension.
political angle is there for all to see. It only needs to be revived.
So perhaps an even better story would be how political division
between the Sinhala South and the Tamil Tigers has resulted in people
of the Northeast being deprived of relief assistance.
are, of course, those who are keen to fan the flames of political
dissension that would be grist to the media mill. It is already
happening here in London where one of the Tamil TV channels has
claimed, according to a Tamil friend of mine, that no relief is
reaching the Northeast because it has been turned back by the Sinhalese
mention was made of the relief sent in several trucks to the Northeast
by a private organisation that was hijacked by the LTTE, according
to media reports. These birds of passage will soon fly away to new
grounds where they will seek their carrion comfort.
it is the more insidious kind that one must guard against. Unlike
China and India who have learnt to deal with their calamities whenever
possible, Sri Lanka lacks the human and financial resources deal
with such disasters on its own.
it has to rely heavily on international relief and expertise. Already
relief from foreign governments and non-governmental organisations
has arrived and so have specialists in various fields.
we should be thankful for such help one needs to watch for the dubious
NGOs and pseudo volunteers who will enter the country in the slipstream
of the international relief effort.
that the problem of rehabilitation and reconstruction has become
even more acute and widespread there would be many who will offer
their help and try to establish themselves in the country.
will come in various guises. There will be foreign NGOs with harmless-sounding
names, recycled NGOs (we have already seen them mushrooming with
recycled officials), Sri Lankan expatriates who think their temporary
return should be welcomed by right and assorted conmen looking for
a holiday or a lucrative venture.
the last few days I have heard of expatriates, some including doctors,
offering themselves as volunteers. But there is a catch. Some of
them would like a free ride to Sri Lanka and back. To them, charity
begins at their former home.
others have a political agenda. They see a great occasion now to
spread their political gospel of deprivation, discrimination and
harassment by exploiting a gullible and receptive foreign media.
government must be sufficiently vigilant to stop undesirables and
the politically invidious from making Sri Lanka a happy playground.
the other day the government gave notice to illegal foreign workers
that they would be evicted.
who knows how many manage to circumvent regulations by parading
as advisors or consultants to donor organisations, using their marriage
to a Sri Lankan as a fig-leaf of a cover. If there are such foreigners
should not their credentials be scrutinised too.
least now our diplomatic missions should be advised to examine rigorously
any visa applications. Just referring them to Colombo will not do.
Neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Immigration Department has
a reputation for infallibility.
we keep our eyes open the vultures will come flying in, as innocently
as the Greeks of yore bearing gifts.