After the Tsunami: The Politics of International Relief

By Suter, Keith | Contemporary Review, March 2005 | Go to article overview

After the Tsunami: The Politics of International Relief


Suter, Keith, Contemporary Review


THE Ring of Fire erupted on 26 December 2004. It created one of the greatest humanitarian crises in modern history. The Ring of Fire is the area around the Pacific Ocean where tectonic plates intersect and volcanoes erupt. It begins in the South Pacific, runs up through eastern Asia, across the northern Pacific, then along the US's west coast, down to the bottom of Latin America.

Two tectonic plates in the Ring of Fire, the Australian and Eurasian plates, meet just off Sumatra's south-west coast. They grind against each other and send periodic seismic tremors through the region. On 26 December, there was a violent rupture, about 1000 km long, on the sea floor along that fault line. Along that rupture, the seafloor was pushed up about 10 metres, displacing hundreds of cubic kilometres of water.

This displacement generated a tidal wave--tsunami--that fanned out across the Indian Ocean. As the wave got near the coast, it slowed to about 45 km per hour but it was also squeezed upwards, thereby increasing its height. In some areas, the waves reached a height of tens of metres. Animals could feel the disturbance through their feet and so dashed instinctively for the high ground. But many humans were transfixed with horror as this 'Hollywood-type' horror wave washed up on their shore.

This article examines four aspects of the international relief effort. It begins with a review of the region's main military trouble spots. It then looks at Aceh, the area most affected by the tsunami and one of the least well-known parts of Indonesia. It then examines the UN's work and concludes with a call to implement a seventeen-year-old report on how to handle natural disasters.

The Problems of Delivering Aid in a Time of Conflict

The tsunami may be an act of nature but humans are complicating the relief effort. Many of the countries affected have their own internal armed conflicts underway which are hampering relief efforts.

The nature of warfare has changed. International conventional warfare is uncommon. It is now very rare for one country to invade another. Countries can get far more from international trade with each other than they can from invasion. International warfare is a bad investment.

Warfare is now increasingly internal and guerrilla. There are probably as many conflicts underway today as at the height of the Cold War. But they are mostly internal, with rival ethnic groups trying to gain control of the country, or fighting to obtain independence from their central government.

Here is a quick survey of the countries most affected by the tsunami and which also have conflicts underway. Indonesia's province of Aceh has been conducting its struggle for independence for several decades and thousands of people have died. The province has been off-limits to international human rights observers and so the true state of the conflict is difficult to gauge. Similarly, some of the Tamils in northern Sri Lanka have sought their own independence or at least a high degree of self-rule from Colombo. The latest round of the Norwegian-brokered peace initiative collapsed just before Christmas. Meanwhile, the undemocratic Burmese government is playing down the number of deaths. It is internationally unpopular and the subject of economic sanctions. Its tally of less than 100 victims is probably untrue. But it is a closed country and so it will be difficult to get at the true figure.

The tsunami took eight-and-a-half hours to cross the Indian Ocean and hit Somalia in east Africa, killing at least 100 people. Somalia is the only country in the world without a government. Kenya has been trying to broker a deal and Somalia's new president is still unable to reside in the national capital. The country is a complete 'free market': no government, no system of security, with individuals relying on their own guns to protect themselves in the clan warfare. One of the world's poorest countries has again suffered another calamity. …

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