Tsunami woes persist

Seventeen months after Sri Lanka's worst-ever natural disaster, some tsunami victims are still living in squalid conditions as Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of the UK-based Save the Children, found out during a recent visit to Sri Lanka.

Jasmine Whitbread, CEO of Save the Children

“I was horrified to find some of them still living in welfare centres, in cardboard box-like accommodation with leaking tin roofs. I met one family who were going through a traumatic time. They had hoped they could move into a permanent shelter, but…” a visibly moved Ms. Whitbread said, leaving the last few words unspoken.

The Save the Children CEO, less than a year in this new position, said that about 50% of the displaced were in permanent shelters, while the balance were in temporary housing.

Ms. Whitbread was quite impressed to find that the best temporary shelter in post-tsunami Sri Lanka was put up by her organisation in Ampara. “I saw how we developed such a good unit. It's not that we are experts, but that we care for the needs of the family. That's the secret – putting up a structure based on people's needs, not the organisation’s. For example, having a kitchen area just outside on the side of the house is convenient. It sounds obvious, but I saw other housing that had ignored this aspect.”

Ms. Whitbread’s visit to Colombo two weeks ago – during the same period when the army commander was injured in a suicide bomb attack at army headquarters – was intended to assess the progress of post-tsunami work. “We have a huge responsibility towards those who gave money from across the world, and equally for the affected to ensure the money is properly spent.”

Asked whether UK’s biggest children’s charity concentrated less on other needy children which it has been helping, because of the enormous post-tsunami work that needs to be done, Ms. Whitbread said all organisations need to strike a delicate balance to ensure there is no discrimination.“We have an obligation towards those who gave money for tsunami, and we have promised to spend it on tsunami victims. We cannot use it for other uses. But at the same time it is not acceptable to focus on the tsunami alone,” the CEO of Save the Children, which has been working in Sri Lanka and worldwide for the past 30 years, noted.

Ms. Whitbread agreed that in some cases the tsunami-affected were not as badly off as those affected by war. “For instance, if your house gets washed away it doesn't mean your livelihood is affected. The crucial issue here is maintaining a balanced response to all these needs. It's not a straightforward issue. It takes a lot of time to provide an equal response.”

Ms. Whitbread said she was happy that the new Sri Lankan government had announced a new policy on housing, land and compensation, which sounds sensible compared to problems with the earlier policy. Another issue that drew her attention during the visit was the security needs of staff from the organization, particularly in the context of the violence in Trincomalee. “I was concerned about the threats to staff working in conflict areas, and I wanted to assure myself that we were handling this well,” she said, adding that Save the Children works in similar situations across the world, and has experience in dealing with these issues and the safeguards needed to protect staff.

What about the threats to women working in NGOs in some eastern areas? “We take threats of violence against women seriously. We understand there are discussions between religious leaders and the community,” she added, noting, “You can't lock women away and prevent them working. If there is a threat to women in the workplace we need to address that and have systems to tackle the problem.”

Ms. Whitbread’s meeting with President Mahinda Rajapaksa was cancelled, as it was scheduled on the same day the suicide bomber struck at the army headquarters.


Hero or villain?

By A. Kandappah

Not a week passes without some reference in the Press, TV or political platform placing Ranil Wickremesinghe in bad light on two issues – the allegation that he surreptitiously entered into the CFA with the LTTE and therefore “sold out” Sinhala interests to them, and that he exposed the names and identity of the military men in the Millennium City safe-house engaged in planning and prosecuting attacks against the LTTE in the “uncleared” areas in the North-East. The last Presidential poll in November 2005 and the local government elections in March 2006 saw both these as major election issues. Eventually, on the basis of the material placed, the larger number in the electorate believed the allegations against him.

An examination of both issues will be of interest. The CFA between the UNP-led coalition of Mr. Wickremesinghe and the LTTE was signed in conditions exposing him to charges of lack of transparency. The Cabinet was not consulted and neither was the then President Chandrika Kumaratunga. While these two lapses may appear as if Mr. Wickremesinghe was in default, it is possible he chose a higher and more tenable consideration – that of the possibility of preventing further death and injury to our fighting men in the North-East and narrowing the gulf of misunderstanding between the Tamil people there and the GOSL. Many believe the path chosen by Mr. Wickremesinghe was for the greater good of the future of Sri Lanka and to create that necessary space for the highly polarised Tamil and Sinhala people to live together in unity again.

While in my several visits to Jaffna and the Eastern Provinces – since the CFA and April 2004 – I found the Tamil people complaining they got far less than what they anticipated from the CFA, they, nevertheless, admitted they are spared the fear of attacks from the air and the negative consequences of war that has been their lot from the 80s. They said they presently lead a relatively “more normal” life than they did in the previous years, though less “normal” than the rest of the country.

From the Southern perspective, there was a definite halt to the procession of coffins bringing the remains of our uniformed men from the North to the South – a well established fact vindicating Mr. Wickremesinghe’s thinking.

Also, until the opening of the A9, many Sinhalese had given up ever going again to their venerated Nagadipa. Across the divide, many Tamils had reluctantly made up their mind that the country had been physically divided and only awaited the formal announcements of the rupture by both sides. Happily for all of us, Mr. Wickremesinghe changed the equation. For this, what we should do, ideally, is not berate him, but praise him.

That brings us to a central problem. We always have difficulty in identifying who our friends/enemies are. As to the question, why he did not take the President and Parliament into confidence in this sensitive affair, your guess is as good as mine in the state of the bitter relationship between the players, from the time Mr. Wickremesinghe took over as PM. And his Cabinet colleagues? Like Nixon and Kissinger, we shall discuss later, he may have thought that they may excuse him for the means that he adopted to secure the end.

Are there parallels in recent history to justify Mr. Wickremesinghe’s position? It might be useful to remember the Ping Pong diplomacy between unlikely candidates then in 1971 – China and the US. The scheme was a brainchild of Harvard Don and late US Secretary of State Dr. Henry Kissinger. The fierce US-Vietnam war was at its most intense then. Some would argue the xenophobic Cultural Revolution was also on at that time. The visionary Kissinger concluded if the barrier of ideological prejudice between the two powers can be penetrated, it was possible to create the path to a future, when both antagonists can work together in their mutual interest and in the interest of a better world. This was a time when many in the academic world insisted that China and US will be permanently locked in various conflicts in the economic-political spheres and in various dimensions.

In the pursuit of his idea, Dr Kissinger made more than one secret visit to China – some through the knowledge and approval of a South Asian country, whose bases and airspace was made available.

McCarthyism (1950/60s) portrayed Mainland China as “the yellow peril” – a clear danger to America, her interests and citizens. The Nixon-Kissinger enterprise changed the entire flavour of future US-China ties. Today China is working with America and developing with American capital and know-how – while theoretically remaining a Communist state. Prime Minister Hu Jin Tao has just concluded a state visit to the US, where the entire US top administration hosted him to an official lunch.

The thaw in US-China relations enables China to help her once-poor people reach first world levels of prosperity through her leap across the ideological barrier. I am reminded of what Den Zhia Peng told Margaret Thatcher when she locked horns with him on an argument on Socialism-Capitalism. “It does not matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice.”

This is the 35th year of the success of Ping Pong diplomacy between these two great powers – once conspiring to destroy each other. In March 2001, when the two countries celebrated the 30th year of this occasion Kissinger was invited to China. At the Diaoytai State Guest House, he was hosted to a banquet by Chinese Vice Premier Li Lanqing in honour of this great diplomatic break-through.

President of the Chinese People’s Association or Friendship with Foreign Countries, Chen Haosu in his toast attributed “ping pong diplomacy to the vision and far sightedness of leaders of both countries, as well as the initiative of non-government personages.” Kissinger, in reply in his toast, said, “US-China relations have come a long way during the 30 years. Since then great changes have taken place in China.”

Kissinger stayed in the No. 6 building of this State Guest House in his 1971 secret visit. Nixon and Kissinger committed the ultimate sacrilegious crime in keeping out the US Congress and the American people from their scheme of things. As matters turned out eventually, what they figured turned out to be just right and in the greater interest of the American people. Consider for one moment what would have happened to the suggestion of a US-China rapprochement in the minds of the American people in those sensitive days of heightened anti-communism, if the duo were to share their thoughts with the American public? The American polity, Press and the mass of US citizens would have shot down the idea the moment it was made.Nixon and Kissinger were well ahead of their times – and, as a result, the US, the American people and the world stood to benefit by the work and thoughts of this pathbreaking duo. So then it is not altogether out of place to try a little bit of totalitarianism now and then – provided you are sure of what you are doing.

The other charge against Mr. Wickremesinghe is that because of the CFA the LTTE re-armed and sent in their cadres and suicide bombers to Colombo. The pre-2002 period shows that in spite of dozens of checkpoints between the North-East and Colombo and strict checking, the LTTE managed to smuggle in their cadres and weapons and carried out deadly missions. The implication here is it requires more than competent checking and re-arming to overcome the magnitude of the challenge before us. The argument that the interim period of the CFA enabled the LTTE to arm themselves has to be viewed from the empirical reality that ever since the 80s we have been at war – low-intensity, low-profile, high-intensity and call it whatever you will. But the truth is that both sides to the conflict have been buying their weapons and arming themselves no matter – one overtly and the other covertly. Mr. Wickremesinghe, therefore, had little to add to this continuing saga.

Someone mentioned that Sri Lankans are notorious for rejecting good advice. I am reminded of the incisive words of the late Reggie Siriwardena, when he referred to the failure of our political leadership to pay attention to the advice of a well-known Don and political thinker analyst, very much with us now. “I have been struck by the frequency with which his prophesies and warnings have been borne out by the subsequent course of actions, which amply establishes the fact that he had been one of those who most consistently and tirelessly offered that enlightenment, which if it had not been driven away, would have averted tragedy and disaster.” Tragedy and disaster, unfortunately, have been our constant companions for over 30 years, only because of our folly and obstinacy. We are yet to see the woods from the trees. Mr. Wickremesinghe, clearly, has had the benefit of good advice.

In so far as the Millennium City safe-house is concerned, in the run-up to the November 2005 Presidential Elections when Mr. Wickremesinghe spoke at the invitation of the OPA, he defended his action that the charge that he exposed the names and identities of the soldiers therein is totally without foundation. He explained that the Stores Section of the Army maintains a record of all the names of the soldiers in the safe-house – for the purpose of issuing them their regular victuals from the Army Stores. He said this record, made in several copies at a time for filing of record to the various divisions of the army administrative apparatus, can easily be obtained by anyone bent on getting a copy of it. Surely, Mr. Wickremesinghe is no less patriotic than any other Sinhalese to jeopardise the life and limb of Sri Lankan uniformed personnel? We owe him the courtesy of accepting his explanation.

Many friends of mine will be surprised that I am writing a piece in defence of Mr. Wickremesinghe, whereas I have been critical of him on many an occasion, even when I held office under his administration. But the democrat that he is, he will not think of me foul, for I was taught the great merits of the sacredness of dissent by a wonderful teacher, a man of God, but a greater friend of man – the late Bishop Lakshman Wickremesinghe; “Imagination initiates, it is the critical spirit that creates.”


When disaster strikes...

By Clarence Welikala

Over the years the international community has become increasingly alarmed by disasters (both natural and man-made), which have tended to be more destructive as they affect an ever-larger population.

Purely due to this calamitous situation, and long before the tragic experience of the tsunami of nearly 18 months ago, the writer made several efforts via the media to garnering support for the establishment of a Civil Defence Academy for Disaster Management in Sri Lanka since November 2003. These attempts virtually bore fruit when the Minister for Disaster Management, Mahinda Samarasinghe took cognisance of the importance and need for an establishment of this nature, resulting in the appointment of a Select Committee to look into this sphere of activity. The select committee, after exhaustive study and investigation, presented its findings and recommendations by way of a comprehensive report to Parliament. The report was accepted in toto and duly passed as an Act of Parliament on May 13, 2005.

Nevertheless, in the ensuing months, inaction has crept in. The government should now be more aware of the need to pay greater attention and emphasis to disaster preparedness and the role of security, recognising the fact that these activities should form an integral part of national development policies than ever before.

It should not be forgotten that international response to the tsunami was originally directed to relief action, but it is now increasingly known that the actual and potential consequences of disasters are becoming so serious and increasingly global in scale that much greater emphasis should be given to planning and prevention. The humanitarian and social effects of disasters, important as they are, are not the sole reason for this. The economic effects of disasters form a formidable obstacle to national development, and may even cancel out any real economic growth which has been achieved. In short, “love’s labour’s lost.” Moreover, the work of rehabilitation and reconstruction diverts resources, both national and international, from future development into the re-establishment of the status quo ante.

The recent article in the newspapers on the subject “Re-establish civil defence force, to manage the bomb threat” by Wing Commander C. A. O. Dirckze is most opportune. He should not only be complimented, but also commended for his far-reaching thoughts, especially in the context of the recent suicide bomb attack targeting the Commander of the Army at no less a location than the Sri Lanka Army headquarters.

The recent bomb attack at the Army HQ raises many a question about Sri Lanka’s security situation

Another article “The Security trade and its challenges” written by Nihal de Alwis, a former senior Police Officer and a founder member of the Industrial Security Foundation of Sri Lanka draws attention to the inadequacies of the security trade, which could at times of crisis, be of immense value, if given proper training and if there is a Training Academy for Civil Defence in this country, as in most developed countries.

It must be reiterated that disaster and preparedness consist of many measures, both long and short-term, designed to save lives and limit the amount of damage that might otherwise be caused by the event. Prevention is concerned with long-term policies and programmes to prevent or eliminate the occurrence of disasters. The corresponding measures are taken in such fields as legislation, physical and urban planning, and public works and buildings.

Organisational structures should be set up on a provincial basis to strengthen precautionary measures to meet disasters. Personnel should be specially nominated in order to collate and provide information without delay. They should be in a position to disseminate knowledge about the disaster among the citizenry, educate them and at the same time mobilise and organise them to make observations and to work out plans for precautionary measures to suit local conditions. For example, special teams should be organised to handle the power industry, post and telecommunications, the traffic and transport agency, supply units, the public security agency, hospitals and others. They should store materials like food, medicine, matches, candles, etc. and gather trucks and automobiles in preparation for the disaster. They should also carry out manoeuvres and training practices before the main shock.

A scheme should be devised to examine the households of the old, the weak, the sick and the disabled for movement to safe places. The responsible departments should set up protective structures and put the preparatory plans into effect, so a better foundation would be laid for the work of substantial protection from the disaster.

Management training and education

In all essentials, emergency management is no different from any other kind of management. There are, however, greater tensions, stronger pressures and more difficult (because they may concern matters of life and death) decisions to be made. All these demand resilience, professional competence, strength of character and integrity.

All disaster preparedness activity has, and must have, as its ultimate objective the protection of human life and property, and all the benefits which flow from that protection in terms of avoiding and minimising social disruption and economic losses. The understanding, co-operation and participation of members of the public is, therefore, necessary, if full value is to be obtained from the preparations which are made. Thus, in the interaction between the emergency authorities and the public, there must be programmes of education and information designed to ensure that the public will, in time of need, react intelligently and promptly to all types of warnings, and comply with them and with instructions issued by the emergency authorities. For their part, that authorities must neither over – nor under – emphasise the seriousness of the potential or actual situation, and must ensure that whatever materials they issue, and whatever warnings and instructions they give, are appropriate, accurate, clear and precise.

A definition

Public information has been defined as “the deliberate, planned and sustained effort to establish and maintain mutual understanding between an organisation and its public.” It tries to develop understanding and goodwill between the organisation and the general public. It tries, in short, to create awareness. In relation to disaster preparedness, the policy must first be designed to educate the public to have:

a. Awareness of the hazards to which a population, local or national is exposed

b. Awareness of the risks stemming from the existence of the hazards

c. Awareness of what can be done, both by the public and by the emergency authorities, to prepare for the impact of an un-avoidable disaster-causing phenomenon and reduce its effects, and

d. Awareness of what should be done – and why it should be done – by the public after the impact, to assist the authorities and initiate the recovery process.

The only way to fulfill or achieve this obligation to the citizenry in our land is via the immediate setting up of a Civil Defence Academy for Disaster Management and the Role of Security in Sri Lanka. I am certain that the Minister for Disaster Management will give this subject the highest priority it deserves.

(The writer is a security consultant and former Security Manager, Unilever Ceylon Ltd. and member of the International Institute of Security, U.K.)

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