Tsunami: A History of War and Colonialism

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The politics and history of countries affected by the tsunami influence relief efforts today.


Aceh, a province on the northern tip of Indonesia, was the hardest hit by the tsunami. While the true number of people dead may never be known, we were quickly assured that Exxon's liquefied natural gas plants had escaped damage. The tsunami rendered hundreds of thousands homeless and destroyed infrastructure. But Aceh is a region already decimated by a war which has raged on and off for 28 years.

Natural gas was discovered in Aceh in 1971 and was quickly exploited to the benefit of the central government of Indonesia and multinational corporations - and to the detriment of people living in the region who found themselves displaced, their land seized and the environment damaged. Currently Aceh supplies 30 percent of all Indonesia's oil - hence its economic and strategic importance.

This expropriation of local resources, along with repression by the Indonesian army, led to the formation of the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) in 1976. They have been fighting ever since. The army has employed a policy of 'draining the ocean to kill the fish' in a war that has seen at least 10,000 civilians killed and tens of thousands more displaced.

In May 2003, following the breakdown of five months of peace talks, the military began a new campaign of terror - to 'strike and paralyse' a group of 5,000 guerrillas by employing a force of up to 40,000 soldiers and 10,000 police. While they claimed only to be targeting armed insurgents, reports of widespread civilian casualties, arrests and torture abound.

A state of civil emergency was declared in May 2004 - shifting the key power from the military to the (highly militarised) police. At the time of writing this state does not seem to have been lifted, meaning that aid workers are finding their movements restricted.

As Sylvia Tiwon and Ben Terrall put it in The Acheh Times, 'While nature wreaked almost unimaginable havoc in a matter of hours, it did so on a terrain already scarred by acts of violence only the human mind can concoct and enact in the name of security and order - and business interests.'

Andaman and Nicobar

The Indian islands of Andaman and Nicobar are home to 400,000 people, dispersed around 83 of some 400 islands.

These 'paradise islands', plugged on tourist websites as destinations for ecotourists, are known for being home to some of the world's oldest tribes - the Sentinalese are the only stone age tribe still in existence. While the preservation of these peoples is given as the reason for restricted access to the islands, in reality this has largely been because Car Nicobar is the site of a massive Indian military base - a listening post for monitoring China. The base was devastated by the tsunami.

The fact that much of the Adamans was off limits to foreigners because of security concerns meant that, as one Oxfam official admitted, 'valuable time' was lost in aid effort. 'This closed door approach of not allowing [foreign aid agencies] is delaying relief efforts,' said Shaheen Nilofer, the head of Oxfam's operations in east India. One of the problems also plaguing the aid effort, said relief workers, was the number of official visits by dignitaries. Each visit takes hundreds of police officers and workers to coordinate, directing valuable resources away from the relief effort.

The use of these tiny islands for military purposes is not new. In the time of Britain's rule over India, Andaman was known as the 'British Siberia'. Andaman capital Port Blair was home to the famous 'Cellular Jail' of the British Raj. It was so called because it was entirely made up of individual cells for the solitary confinement of prisoners. Indian freedom fighters were isolated, tortured, humiliated and executed on this tropical Camp X-Ray.

Controversial nationalist Netaji Subash Chandra Bose travelled to Andaman in 1943 to fly the flag of Indian independence, stating that the Cellular Jail should be the first place to be liberated from the chains of British rule - just as the Bastille had been liberated in the French Revolution.