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Tragedy and apathy

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By Farooq Sulehria

Outside Asia, Sweden is the country most hard hit by the tsunami tragedy. Fifteen hundred Swedish tourists in Thailand are missing. On New Year's Eve, instead of celebrations, there was mourning for the tsunami victims. The tsunami has shaken this nation of nine million -- but not merely in grief. Many are agitated at the apathy of social democratic Swedish government.

'Scandalous', is how an angered Red Cross volunteer terms Swedish foreign minister Laila Freivalds' intent to visit Thailand to assess the enormity of catastrophe before sending help. In sharp contrast is the generosity of the Thais towards stranded Swedish tourists, like the poor Thai woman taking care of a Swedish baby whose mother went missing.

But Sweden is not alone in its official indifference to this Southern tragedy. The real scandal was the apathy of the USA, which initially announced $15 million towards relief activities, provoking even the otherwise 'never-minding' UNO, and the UN Undersecretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, Jan Egeland, to suggest that the United States and other Western nations were being "stingy" with relief funds.

Colin Powell protested, saying "the US is not stingy". He is right: the Pentagon is sending the USS Abraham Lincoln aircraft carrier, a helicopter carrier and a submarine to the region. But how on earth will a submarine help in this disaster - perhaps to secure some sort of military and/or political advantage?

The US then doubled its aid to $35 million (at the time of writing). "That's almost half Steve Job's income in 2003. Apple paid him a miserable $75 million. Of course, there's the $2bn a week spent 'liberating' the Iraqi people, so money is tight," comments a US trade unionist, tongue-in-cheek.

Compare this to the $152 billion being spent in Iraq, an amount more than 4000 times $35 million. The USA spends approximately $270 million each day for the occupation of Iraq. The cost of one F-22 Raptor fighter jet is $225 million. In any case, $35 million is peanuts, compared even to what the Bush-Cheney Presidential Inaugural Committee intends to raise -- $40 million -- in the next few weeks to host its gala parties and the inaugural parade. Or consider the $13.6 billion the Bush Administration provided in emergency funding to Florida (it was an election year) in response to the four destructive hurricanes in that state.

The US ally Australia promised $35 million compared to the almost one billion dollars spent on the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Apparently there are priorities that are more important than saving lives.

Blair's response prompted Scottish Socialist Party Member Parliament (MSP) Carolyn Leckie to accuse Britain of offering only a "pittance" in relief.

Meantime, Vietnam's donation of US$150,000 to Indonesia and $100,000 each to Thailand, India and Sri Lanka (a total of $450,000) and East Timor's US $50,000 may not be an enormous amount. But it is enough to put Gˆran Persson, Howard, Blair and Bush to shame. And if Bush is serious in his promise that 'more will be coming', he should pay heed to Jubilee South that says: 'In the face of Debt and Disaster: Long-lasting Relief for the Peoples of the South'.

Jubilee South demands: 'Now, more than ever, at their hour of greatest need, the peoples of the South must be heeded in their long-standing demand for debt cancellation. In the face of this massive destruction, northern and international creditors should not continue to hold South peoples in bondage for debts that have in large part, only contributed to their impoverishment and deprivation. If there is any measure of sincerity in the outpouring of compassion from North governments for the peoples of the South, let this be through concrete action. In addition to emergency relief operations and rehabilitation, what we need immediately is: UNCONDITIONAL DEBT CANCELLATION NOW!'

 
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