When 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.

It 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.

It 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.

But 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.

Those 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.

Thousands 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.

Following 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.

Even 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.

Not 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.

The 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.

So 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.

The 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 daily bread.

They 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.

So 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.

Our 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 lying unused.

How 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.

But 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.

That 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.

There 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 at Habarana.

No 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.

But 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.

So 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.

While 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.

Now 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.

They 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.

In 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.

Still 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.

The government must be sufficiently vigilant to stop undesirables and the politically invidious from making Sri Lanka a happy playground.

Only the other day the government gave notice to illegal foreign workers that they would be evicted.

Still, 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.

At 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.

Unless we keep our eyes open the vultures will come flying in, as innocently as the Greeks of yore bearing gifts.

Back to Top
 Back to Columns  

Copyright © 2001 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd. All rights reserved.