The tsunami hasn’t been the only disaster in the affected areas
by Farooq Sulehria

"The Burma regime hushed up the tsunami news because earthquake is considered a symbol of government change in Burma," says Khin Maung Win, deputy director of the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) Radio, talking to this writer over the phone.

Jan Hoddan, Director for Asia Pacific region at Olof Palme International Centre, Stockholm, who has long been engaged in the Burmese democratic struggle, agrees. "The regime is extremely superstitious. They believe in astrology and take strange decisions. Nobody, even their Chinese mentors, can predict regime’s next move."

But it is not mere superstition that led the military regime in Rangoon, in power since 1962, to play down the news - another reason was to continue to keep Burma behind the iron curtain. Announcing the true scale of the disaster would invite a flurry of media, relief workers and aid agencies, note Burma watchers like Khim and Hoddan. Khin fears as many as a thousand tsunami-related deaths. The official death toll is 90 at the time of writing.

"Our estimates may not be very correct. But we think the enormity of the tsunami belies the official claims. The tsunami didn’t just hit the Mon state — many small islands were hit all across south of Burma that the regime is not talking about. Then there are at least 50 military installations in the tsunami-hit region, where many employees must have been present," says Khin.

Jan Hoddan believes the military installations themselves are reason enough to hush up the news - the regime does not want to expose its major military presence in an area witnessing a low-intensity war for decades. "Even if one goes by the figures released by the regime," he says, "there is no mention of almost 800 migrant Burmese workers who lost their lives when the tsunami hit Thailand."

There are over a million Burmese in Thailand living in 125 refugee camps, says Hoddan. He guesses that many Burmese were affected in these camps too although no deaths have been reported. "I would attribute this apathy to regime’s general stupidity," says Hoddan. "This is not the first time that Burmese regime has shown its indifference to the suffering of ordinary people."

The Burmese regime may have hushed up news about the tsunami’s effects on its territory, but a kind of unconscious connivance of this hush up is apparent in the mainstream media too. This is particularly true in Sweden where the media blitz has focused on the loss of Swedish lives, almost as if the tsunami’s epicentre was in the Baltic Sea instead of the Indian Ocean. An alien landing in Sweden on December 26 and monitoring the media here would have concluded that it is Swedes who inhibit Thailand. Let alone Burma, the Swedish media took their time reaching Aceh, the biggest victim of the tsunami and Sri Lanka, the second most affected country.

To attribute the greatest tsunami death toll to Indonesia in fact a misnomer, as it was only Aceh ‘province’ on the northern tip of Sumatra island that was hit by the tsunami. "There isn’t a single family here in Stockholm that has not lost some relatives in Aceh," says Yousaf Daud, Chairperson for Swedish Acehese Association, who lost his mother, sister and a niece to the tsunami. Two of his friends, also SAF members sitting with him name near and dear ones they lost.

There are almost 200 Acehese living in Stockholm, many from Meulaboh, the biggest city in Aceh. Meulaboh has been washed away. Indonesian Vice-President Yusuf Kalla, who made an aerial reconnaissance of the western coastline and outlying islands said he saw ‘no signs of life in Meulaboh’, a town with a population of 40,000.

But like Burma, the tsunami has not been the only disaster for Aceh. The ‘tsunami’ wrought by the Indonesian military (TNI) on the oil-and-gas rich Aceh ‘province’ has cost 20,000 lives since 1976 when the Gerkan Atjeh Merdehka (Free Aceh Movement) popularly known as GAM launched its armed struggle for Aceh’s independence. Since May 2003, more than 2000 people have been killed, mostly civilians, including women and children. A civil emergency and martial law have been imposed there since 2003, with Aceh being made off limits to world media and international observers. In a previous period of martial law, from 1989 to 1998, an estimated 10,000 Acehese were allegedly killed at the hands of the TNI.

It is not clear how much of the one billion dollar aid reluctantly (reluctantly, because the initial amount was just $15 million, raised to $35 million when termed ‘stingy’ by UNO, and then raised to the present amount) announced by George Bush will reach Aceh. But a one billion dollar soft loan reached Indonesia quite speedily a couple of years ago, so that TNI could buy Hawk fighter-bombers when the fight against GAM was intensifying. Neocon efforts to remove human rights sanctions against Indonesia are no secret either.

Sidney Blumenthal, former senior advisor to president Clinton, quotes a state department spokesman saying: "The US government does not have the moral authority to assess or act as a judge of other countries, including Indonesia, on human rights, especially after the abuse scandal at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison" (‘Tsunami isn’t the only tragedy in Burma, Aceh’, The Guardian, Jan 6). Cuba however remains an exception for judgement despite all the ‘moral authority’ loss.

"Silence on TNI crimes tantamount to connivance with such crimes. Had Aceh not been off-limits for last two years for the outside world, many lives could be saved," laments Yousaf Daud. Because Aceh’s been closed to the outside world, it took some time for the world to realise the magnitude of the damage to the area.

Jakarta has been criticised for its lukewarm response even after realising the enormity of the catastrophe. US based pro-Aceh groups East Timor Action Network, International Labour Rights Fund and Nonviolence International have called upon the Indonesian government to "not let politics override the needs of people in tsunami-stricken Aceh". Expressing concern that "delays by the Indonesian government in allowing international access to Aceh may have needlessly cost precious lives", they have demanded that the government "cut through its bureaucratic red tape so aid can get through as quickly as possible". The reason for Jakarta’s lukewarm response is considered to be akin to Rangoon’s: iron curtain over Aceh.

Under immense international pressure, the Indonesian government allowed the international relief workers to reach Aceh. But reports of continuous violence against the Free Aceh Movement (GAM) continue to pour in. On January 2 Associated Press reported two deaths at the hands of TNI. The state-run Antara news agency says that they were trying to attack a relief convoy, although GAM leader and prime minister of Aceh’s exile government, Malik Mahmud declared a ceasefire since December 31. Mahmud, who lives in hiding in Stockholm, has issued a statement hoping that TNI will respect the GAM-declared ceasefire. Daud doesn’t hold out much hope for his call. "There was a ceasefire in 2002 too. But it was violated by TNI," he says.

As in Burma and Aceh, the tsunami was not the only tragedy for Sri Lanka’s north-east Tamil-held areas. Colombo did not even allow Kofi Annan to visit the Tamil region when he went to Sri Lanka on January 8. Colombo, like Jakarta and Rangoon, does not want separatist politics of its country to be exposed either. Sadly, politics are being allowed to override humanitarian needs, even in the wake of the mother of all tragedies.

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