Political Column  

The 'I' of the tsunami By Our Political Editor
A week after a monolithic trail of death and destruction by tsunamis, a nation weeps. Thousands have died and thousands more injured. More than a million Sri Lankans are homeless, most hardly able to find food for their sustenance or a roof above their head. Human misery, perhaps, has not achieved fuller meaning in the recent decades than it was last Sunday.

But a tragedy that follows any national calamity in Sri Lanka is bereft with a comedy. This time, amidst great grief and sorrow, pain and perseverance, one is not sure whether to laugh or cry.

After some 42,000 deaths (Government says its figure is over 24,000 and the LTTE over 18,000), thousands injured, a million forced out of their homes, billions of property destroyed, our leaders, both politicians and professionals spoke.

President Chandrika Kumaratunga, who was on holiday in Britain, returned to Colombo. She told the nation three days after the heart-rending tragedy: "I have already initiated action to obtain foreign advisory services to expand and upgrade the Disaster Management Unit established a few years ago in the President's Office". This, she said, was to set up an early warning system for natural disasters. Later, she declared to the country's business leaders that in future, as a safety measure, construction of houses would not be allowed in areas close to the seacoast. The problem was, that it was the High Commissioner-designate to Canberra and her former Secretary Kusumsiri Balapatabendi who was with her when the biz leaders were asked to dig deep into their purses.

What has the 'Disaster Management Unit' established "a few years ago in the President's Office " done all this time? Did it have plans to cope with a disaster like floods, leave alone a tsunami? How many of these men or women were seen in action after last week's catastrophe? A benumbed nation will read in our newspaper today that this National - Disaster Management Unit had three telephones, ten staff, and is closed on public holidays.

In 2002, the newly-elected UNF government decided to establish a new Ministry for Disaster Management. The UNF wanted to upgrade the Presidential Task Force for Disaster Preparedness which was under President Kumaratunga. Sarathchandra Rajakaruna was selected as the Minister for the new Ministry, but the President argued that as the subject was already under her, she did not deem it fit to appoint a UNF Minister. This was the time, she was hemming and hawing and refusing to administer the oath of office to S.B. Dissanayake as well.

A series of letters were exchanged between the then Prime Minister's secretary Bradman Weerakoon and the President's Office, and in 2003, when the crunch came in the form of the disastrous landslides in the Sabaragamuwa and southern regions of Sri Lanka, the Prime Minister yielded and allowed the President to chair the Human Disaster Management Committee.

All the political leaders of the day toured the flood-stricken areas, promised to re-build the ravaged hamlets, and soon, everything was forgotten.

In her address laced with plenty of the letter "I" - "I wish to...", "I have already....", "I have today....." - the President of Sri Lanka, Head of Government and Commander-in-Chief, spoke about what she wants to do. She even wanted to raise issue at the SAARC summit scheduled for next month in the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. But that has now been postponed since three of the association's seven members - India, Maldives and Sri Lanka - have been hit badly by a catastrophe. Therefore, she will also not make her planned visit next month to Pakistan.

If that was President Kumaratunga, her top most military man running the country's security machine, Chief of Defence Staff and Commander of the Navy, Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri had to add to it. Two days after the catastrophe, his Joint Operations Headquarters (JOH) announced that a "24-hour Tri-Service Emergency Disaster Centre for Relief Operations meant to receive humanitarian assistance for distribution among the thousands of affected civilians, has been now set up at Galle Face Esplanade, headed by Rear Admiral Harsha Mayadunne."

The announcement added, "All members of the Armed Forces meanwhile have decided to donate one-day pay towards a Government's ongoing rescue and relief operations subsequent to an emergency meeting of the tri-service commanders, headed by Chief of Defence Staff Vice Admiral Daya Sandagiri. The public are requested to co-operate with the Armed Forces at this hour of national disaster by extending their hands of friendliness and humanity."

One cannot be uncharitable to Vice Admiral Sandagiri for the great humanitarian task he has undertaken. He is well known for his magnanimity in being deeply religious over such social service activity. In that spirit he had appointed a Rear Admiral to spearhead efforts to seek public support. But as the top most officer in charge of the country's military machine has he placed any Rear Admiral, any Major General or any Air Vice Marshals in charge of a more important and cardinal responsibility - help in the early restoration of life in the affected areas by helping to recover the dead, rush the wounded to hospital and clear the roads? How much of help did the local Police, who were themselves lackadaisical, receive from the armed forces? The troops cannot be blamed, for it is not their fault. The Sunday Times learnt most of the officers and men were angry they did not get an opportunity to put in their collective effort. Is it not their responsibility to ensure the security of those thousands and thousands rendered homeless and thus were threatened?

Sri Lankans watching round-the-clock television coverage would have observed that in most of the footage there was hardly any presence of personnel from the security forces. There were a few occasions when they were there, like for example, Navy sailors recovering the bodies of those who died in a train disaster. But that was two long days after the catastrophe.

Why were the vast majority of security forces personnel allowed to remain in their barracks? Why were the vast amount of heavy equipment available with the Sri Lanka Air Force, obtained to hurriedly repair the Katunayake airport after the terrorist attack in July 2001, not deployed immediately to open up some of the roads that were blocked so relief could follow immediately? Why did one top big wig there tell his young subordinates, who were angry that no action was being taken, that road repairs were the responsibility of the Road Development Authority?

The Sunday Times sought answers to these questions from Vice Admiral Daya Sandagari. He did not respond. Were the Armed Forces taking over the job of the Social Service Department? Apart Non Governmental Organisations, all print and electronic media groups in the country, and other social service organisations. there were foreign governments and international organizations that have come to the rescue.

To add insult to injury, the Chief of Defence Staff went public with appeals inviting the public and the NGOs to help. Perhaps, that should have come from a Government Minister allowing Admiral Sandagiri time to focus on regrouping from losses suffered by the Navy itself, helping the public to heal the wounds of those injured, and being in readiness for any eventuality at the battlefront. Most bodies remained in areas of destruction for at least two to three days. So were some who were injured. Helping them most were the public in those areas. Obstructions across road again were largely removed by other state agencies and the public.

The opposition United National Party is no exception. Its very first release on the catastrophe did not fail to record that "Mr. Ranil Wickremesinghe was the first national leader to visit a scene of devastation since Tsunamis (sic) took Sri Lanka unawares in the morning of 26th...." It went on to catalogue the areas he visited.

Ports Minister Mangala Samaraweera who was vactioning in exotic Casablanca (we would be glad to know if not, where he was) returned to the island and just could not wait to get to Colombo. He chaired a meeting at the airport itself, which was widely covered by the state media of which he is the Minister. Earlier, of course, the dutiful minister was reported by state media to have given telephone instructions to the state media bosses to do the needful, as if they needed a call for that.

Health Minister Nimal Siripala de Silva returned to the island and quickly ran around the hospitals to show how concerned he was, and Foreign Minister Lakshman Kadirgamar who was on an official visit in China, and seen going to meet Chinese leaders with a hurriedly tailored black band round his arm, returned on Thursday, and went straight into a meeting with the diplomatic corps.

The inimitable, irrepressible Tourism Minister Anura Bandaranaike, unlike his sister, and other Ministers, did not bother with cutting short his 41st trip to Los Angeles, and return home. Though his Ministry was one of the worst sectors to be devastated, Bandaranaike was steadfast in his task of issuing instructions asking his Ministry officials to take appropriate action to help the tourists who had suffered problems. At least this time, unlike the Shahrukh Khan show, he did not call for reports on why no toilet facilities were available and food was sold at exorbitant prices.

From far away Los Angeles, Bandaranaike, however, briefed CNN that his sister was rushing back from Britain to take control of the situation. Then came a gem. He disclosed to the whole world that he had asked Sri Lanka's Ambassador to the United States, Devinda Subasinghe, to speak to the George W. Bush Government and obtain aid. And to think of it. If not for Bandaranaike's telephone call to Ambassador Subasinghe, President Bush would have said nothing about us.

If that was pathetic, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapakse scored heavily in this time of distress. Undoubtedly, he was moved by the fact that his own constituencies of Beliatte and Tangalle were badly hit by tsunami. That is not what propelled him into action. He found that the Government was on holiday, and he was to take charge.

On Sunday and Monday - the first 48 hours of the disaster, it was the Prime Minister who summoned an emergency cabinet meeting of whoever was left in Sri Lanka. The others were on holiday, a fashionable thing for politicians during yearend. He visited the affected areas, and his office created an Ops Centre, to co-ordinate relief and receive funds from the public.

Immediately after the return of the President on December 28, the President's Office created a President's Disaster Relief Fund - and that was not it - issued instructions to all government institutions to direct their contributions to that Fund.

There is nothing in Sri Lanka that is not politics, not even a tsunami can change the course of that. Prime Minister Rajapakse was soon upstaged with the President taking charge. Nary a word of thanks, as it were, to her PM for 'holding the crumbling fort' in the first crucial, harrowing hours.

That was not the only setback for the indefatigable Prime Minister. When he took the JVP leaders with him to Jaffna, it was like showing a red flag to a raged Tiger. The worst came when he was addressing a meeting at the Puloly Central College. Protestors carrying ekel brooms, brooms, sticks and even umbrellas interrupted the meeting.

Army commandos rushed in to protect Prime Minister Rajapakse and thereafter he was whisked away in an Air Force helicopter to Palaly. Others went by road. But the protests managed to let loose their anger on a few journalists. A Rupavahini cameraman ended up with bruises all over his back.

The ire of the protestors was the presence of two JVP members in Premier Rajapakase's delegation. The protestors shouted slogans to say the JVPers - Anura Dissanayake and Wimal Weerawansa - were not welcome in the peninsula. Earlier, a threewheeler taxi procession with loud hailers paraded the town announcing that the JVPers were not welcome.

The tsunamis have not only devastated most of the coastal regions of Sri Lanka. They have also changed the country's political firmament. LTTE leader, Velupillai Prabhakaran, who has murdered thousands, mostly Sinhalese, was condoling with them over the losses and suffering they underwent.

The JVP who looked at the international community as a bunch of pariahs was appealing for their help. What more this new year holds will become clear in the weeks and months to come.

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