The Golden Wave: Culture and Politics after Sri Lanka's Tsunami Disaster

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In December 2004 the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated coastal regions of Sri Lanka. Six months later, Michele Ruth Gamburd returned to the village where she had been conducting research for many years and began collecting residents' stories of the disaster and its aftermath: the chaos and loss of the flood itself; the sense of community and leveling of social distinctions as people worked together to recover and regroup; and the local and national politics of foreign aid as the country began to rebuild. In The Golden Wave, Gamburd describes how the catastrophe changed social identities, economic dynamics, and political structures.

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1 That Day: Chaos and Solidarity

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Mahanama Thero, the chief monk at the Naeaegama temple, described the events of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 26, 2004, in these words:

Even today we can’t imagine how this disaster happened.

What came in was bad water. It was not like ordinary seawater. It was black and muddy.

Some parents tried to hold onto their children, but the water was too strong and the children slipped away. Some people were washed away in their cars. A train turned over at Peraeliya with two thousand people in it, including some who had climbed in for safety. They didn’t think something so heavy would be affected by the waves. But even though it was heavy, it wasn’t safe. It flipped over.

Only the people who were able to climb up were saved. Some people were saved because they climbed on temple stupas or bo trees. Some were naked, clinging to coconut trees.

Karapitiya Hospital [in Galle] was full of people. They had gotten dirty water from the tsunami in their mouths and lungs and on their wounds. That water was filthy and smelly! There wasn’t even water to drink. People had to bring water and food from other areas.

 

2 Deaths: Fate and Vulnerability

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PRASANNA, WHO WORKED in the army, discussed tsunami fatalities. He said, “Our military people from all branches of the service helped collect the dead bodies. For example, we helped in Peraeliya [at the site of the train derailment where 1,200 people died]. The civilians didn’t want to do this work, and they didn’t have the right equipment for carrying bodies. Those bodies were decomposing; they were coming apart in pieces and fluid was oozing out.” Pictures and videos of mass graves marked the magnitude of the fatalities and the unprecedented treatment of the bodies.

Anthropologist Clifford Geertz writes, “There are at least three points where chaos—a tumult of events which lack not just interpretations but interpretability—threatens to break in upon man: at the limits of his analytic capacities, at the limits of his powers of endurance, and at the limits of his moral insight” (1973, 100). The tsunami heightened survivors’ awareness of their physical fragility and their lack of control over natural hazards. By mid-2005, people had had time to think deeply and ask themselves why this disaster had happened and why particular people had been harmed or killed.

 

3 Short-Term Camps: Chaos and the Crafting of Order

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IN MID-2005, ARI and Wije told Siri and me what it was like to grapple with the magnitude of the relief efforts in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster. Ari and Wije were government poverty alleviation workers (samurdhi nyamakas or SNs). Ari noted, “There was no organization at first because all the SNs and GNs had also run from the tsunami! After two or three days we got organized to control the distribution by the government.”

Wije said, “At first, individual people were bringing help to temples and other camps. They were distributing without knowledge of who was who. So there were troubles.”

Ari chimed in, “Then the government took over the distribution of aid. The aid was delivered by the SNs. They distributed from GN and SN houses or from other appropriate places.”

Wije said, “There were about a thousand people at the temple in Maaduwa because it is a high place. The Red Cross was there giving medicine.”

Ari continued, “The SNs were delivering dry goods, canned food, clothing, rice, milk powder, flour, biscuits, sugar—all sorts of dry rations.”

 

4 Housing: Temporary Shelters, Permanent Homes, and the Buffer Zone

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FUNDS FOR HOUSING constituted a major portion Sri Lanka’s “unprecedented” amount of international tsunami aid (Kuhn 2010, 42; K. Silva 2009, 61, 66; de Silva 2009, 1). About half of the people who were initially displaced by the tsunami—for example, those whose residences were muddied but not structurally damaged by the waves—were able to return home quickly. But in mid-June 2005, five hundred thousand people remained displaced and a large number of homes still needed to be repaired or rebuilt (Institute of Policy Studies 2005, 40).

Housing for people displaced by the tsunami was provided in a number of stages. Initially, people received ad hoc, informal aid from friends, family, and strangers in private houses or community gathering spaces such as schools, temples, and churches. Many people stayed with friends and relatives, but those who lacked alternative housing were supplied with tents. Within a couple of months, they moved to temporary shelters provided by foreign donors. A total of fifty-six thousand temporary shelters were constructed (RADA 2006, 2).

 

5 Dangerous Liaisons: The Power, Peril, and Politics of Mediating between Donors and Recipients

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ADMINISTERING AID—THE GIFT-GIVING end of the humanitarian relationship—is an admittedly difficult endeavor, especially in a disaster as large and complex as the tsunami. Disaster studies specialist Timmo Gaasbeek (2010, 125) notes that a “flood of foreign volunteers, aid workers and NGOs” inundated Sri Lanka following the disaster. When I arrived in Naeaegama in July 2005, the tourist economy had been devastated by the tsunami, but foreigners abounded on the island, caught up in relief work. That summer, I recognized a sea change in how Sri Lankans interacted with unknown Westerners. Whereas in the past only tourist touts had solicited my attention outside the village area, in 2005 other categories of people approached me. I received my first “tsunami request” several days after my arrival in Naeaegama as I walked to the junction to buy a newspaper. Holding a bag full of paperwork to back up her claim, a stranger told me that the tsunami had destroyed her beachside house. She wondered whether I had the money to help rebuild it.

 

6 Business Recovery: Tourism and Construction

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THE TSUNAMI DAMAGED businesses both large and small up and down Sri Lanka’s southern coastline. The value of the damages in Sri Lanka was estimated at US$1.1 billion, with 31.8 percent of these damages in productive sectors (Telford, Cosgrave, and Houghton 2006, 37). Highly visible in the international news were the loss of fishing boats and the destruction of tourist hotels. An estimated seventy-five thousand people lost their livelihoods in the fishing industry (RADA 2006, 8), and the tsunami damaged 58 of Sri Lanka’s 242 registered hotels (Institute of Policy Studies 2005, 52).

Official help was put in place for business recovery for corporations and workers in the formal economy. Various government ministries, departments, and agencies, private sector actors, and international organizations coordinated loans, grants, and other activities for livelihood restoration and development (RADA 2006, 9). A local Samurdhi Bank worker reported to me that the government poverty alleviation program suspended for a time the repayment of existing loans and extended additional funds for all sorts of small businesses, for example the making of incense sticks or hand-rolled cigarettes, coconut fiber work, masonry or carpentry work, small grocery stores, and the peddling of items by bicycle. By mid-2006, Rs. 4,769 million (roughly US$47 million) had been distributed to support small businesses (RADA 2006, 10). Other banks also offered special low-interest loans for larger businesses rebuilding from the tsunami (Institute of Policy Studies 2005, 51).

 

7 Reconstructing Class: Discourse on Theft, Loot, Cheating, and Gifts

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Narrative Politics and Status Dynamics in Discussions of Aid

Immediately following the tsunami, Naeaegama villagers reported a sense of generosity, equality, and open-hearted community spirit. Shortly thereafter a reassertion followed of self-interest and social hierarchy. As people strove to make sense of damage, death, and disbursement of disaster aid, they interpreted what had happened, why it had happened, and who deserved what.

In mid-2005, conversations about fate and fairness took place on several topics. One topic was what had caused the tsunami deaths. Another topic was the distribution of tsunami aid, with which southwestern Sri Lanka was awash at the time. Local and international donors had generously channeled gifts of food, clothing, and household items; contractors were swiftly constructing new homes; and businesses were being rebuilt and revitalized. Talking about both topics, villagers discussed what people deserved and what they received in terms of ethical character and morality.

 

8 The Politics of Corruption: Accusations and Rebuttals

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AS THE IMMEDIATE crisis ebbed, government officials and international donors took over the administration of aid from the religious institutions, local organizations, and private citizens who had met displaced people’s initial needs. By mid-2005, tsunami relief and recovery operations were in full swing, and Naeaegama area residents were keenly evaluating and critiquing them. Conversations revolved around issues of accountability, efficiency, and fairness.

The Sri Lankan government’s post-tsunami distribution of aid raised moral and legal concerns among local observers. This sort of concern is not unique to Sri Lanka; indeed, disasters often raise such questions about governance. Disasters simultaneously increase citizens’ needs and decrease the ability of governments and other institutions to meet those needs. Le Billon and Waizenegger write, “External assistance can help local authorities in this regard, but windfalls in relief and reconstruction aid can also increase the risk of (perceived) fraud, corruption, mismanagement and dispossession by the government and its cronies, aggravating the plight of the most vulnerable and grievances against authorities” (2007, 414). Despite what some observers deem to have been a highly successful relief and recovery operation (Gaasbeek 2010; Telford, Cosgrave, and Houghton 2006, 66–67, 75), the government of Sri Lanka nonetheless met with embarrassing criticism of its handling of the disaster (Centre for Policy Alternatives 2006a, 1–2; Frerks 2010, 160–61; Keenan 2010; Sarvananthan and Sanjeewanie 2008, 345).

 

9 Citizenship and Ethnicity: The Tsunami and the Civil War

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IN MID-2005, SIRI and I spoke with Deepak. A fit, humorous man in his thirties, Deepak sat with us on his porch as a group of neighborhood children played an informal game of cricket in the sandy courtyard. Deepak was stationed in Jaffna with the Sri Lankan Army and told us about the post-tsunami situation in the North.

Although the area near the Palali Air Force Base was only 150 meters from the sea, Deepak reported that it was not extensively damaged. However, the waves inundated the supplies buildings, and the water soaked the stocked items or washed them into the ocean. The army facility at Point Pedro fared worse; fifty soldiers and a number of civilians died there, and over seventy soldiers were injured. Deepak said, “Mostly it was people in the fighting units who got caught. They were spread out along the beach, fifty to one hundred meters from the sea. There are dunes there—only sand. So a lot of people got caught in the waves.”

On the day of the tsunami, Deepak was at home in Naeaegama. Because of the disruption caused by the disaster, he took two extra days of leave. Deepak returned to the North aboard an airplane laden with relief and recovery supplies. The military brought food and clothing from donors in the South to the tsunami-affected people (mostly Tamils) near Palali. They also brought tents and other equipment, and they helped make temporary shelters. Deepak reported that food and medical aid also came by ship to Kankasanturai, a major Jaffna navy base; this aid was distributed in the Mullaittivu area.

 

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