Contemplating the Tsunami
by Bill Templer      <>

February 6, 2005

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Bill Templer is a Chicago-born linguist and Israeli who worked many years with the Bedouin Rights Association in southern Israel, the Palestinian-run Galilee Research Center in Nazareth, and in the Roma civil rights movement in eastern Bulgaria. Some of his recent writing on Israel/Palestine includes articles at, and
He is on the staff of the Dubnow Institute for Jewish History and Culture, University of Leipzig, and is currently teaching at a technological university in Thailand’s far south.

The compassion for more instantaneous “natural” disasters … as opposed to the more readily preventative devastation of war, militarization and genocide brings to light the degree of indecency and schizophrenia of the colonial consciousness.
—Harsha Walia 1

      How should anti-authoritarian socialists respond to the politics of the Great Wall of Water of 12/26 and the Spectacle of its havoc in the corporate media? Its horrific tragedy is interwoven with the very architecture of our world system built on inequality, privilege and greed, inequity and vast asymmetry — structures of neo-colonial control and dependency, wealthy centers and desperately impoverished peripheries. The tsunami becomes a text through which to read the contradictions of this system, highlighting the need for a world built on socialist principles of Mutual Aid and self-organization.

      This article, written on the Thai Andaman coast, looks at a few of those contradictions. In conclusion it suggests how communalist structures could make a difference when facing natural disasters or the ‘silent tsunamis’ of disease, deprivation and oppression that sweep regularly across much of the Global South.


      The epicenter of the massive earthquake (9.0 on the Richter scale) is shown as the red dot just south of Banda Aceh at the northwest tip of Indonesia. This map is taken

from the site, where you can see it full size. Almost directly northeast of the epicenter is the central Andaman coast of Thailand, shown in the detailed map below.

Near the lower right-hand corner is Pakmeng Beach, which is adjacent to the campus of the technological university from where Bill Templer wrote this report. This map is taken from the site, where it is slightly larger. (notes on location by G.S. with information from Bill Templer)

Why No Warning?

      Giles Ji Ungpakorn has stressed: “As events in Thailand show, natural disasters, such as violent storms, earthquakes and tsunamis may have natural causes, but their effects are the result of the profit-driven system we live in.”2 The system’s priorities are inscribed in the chilling fact that on the morning of 12/26 a warning was sent from Hawaii to the American military base on the island of Diego Garcia far south of Sri Lanka — while elsewhere there was silence. Or, as here in Thailand, a conscious decision was made in Bangkok not to “alarm” the tourists at the very peak of high season on the Andaman Sea coast.3 Simple science in the hands of the masses could have saved tens of thousands.4

      A decision was made not to try to notify the fishermen and island ferries pulling out to sea. There were a full two hours in Thailand between the seaquake’s first tremor at 8 a.m. and the cataclysm that hit our southwestern coasts at 10. Intentionally it was decided not to alert the tourism industry. One of my own students, a tour guide out in a longboat with 21 passengers at Bamboo Island in Krabi, escaped in the nick of time because she suddenly spotted the Great Wave coming, was near shore, and hurried her boat captain and astounded tourists to high ground. She had a cell phone in her pocket and could have easily been given a warning had her firm been notified. There was none.

      As Fred Goldstein notes: “Capitalist television networks have recently carried footage of amateur video showing the tsunami hitting Banda Aceh. But first you saw people cleaning up from the earthquake, slowly and methodically for 25 minutes, completely oblivious of what was to follow — despite definite danger signs, like the sea receding. An organized, educated, prepared population with the government fully behind it could have evacuated thousands of people, even at the site closest to the epicenter of the tsunami. Evacuation to safety in most areas involved moving people only a relatively short distance from the coast. This holds in even greater measure for the high-casualty areas further from the quake, such as Thailand, Sri Lanka, India and of course East Africa.”5

Horror on the Margins of a Margin

      This has been a calamity on the ‘periphery of a periphery,’ massively affecting in the main simple fisher families and their economies. Economies where people live literally on the edge. Anti-authoritarians can learn much from the World Forum of Fisher Peoples about the politics of their labor and lives, so central to this catastrophe, and identify with their struggle, lending them support.6 Natural disasters affect poor and developing countries disproportionately, often most dramatically. Why? One reason is because the struggle of the down-and-out for daily survival does not allow for disaster preparedness. And as mappings at the Earth Institute at Columbia University clearly show, most of the ‘disaster hot spots’ on our planet lie in the Global South. The geology and meteorology of calamity ominously overlap with the geography of poverty.7

Profits not Mangroves

      Yet this calamity was due in significant part not to geology — but to massive environmental degradation as a result of a profit-driven system of priorities: the destruction of the mangrove forests along the coasts of the Indian Ocean over the past two decades, sacrificed to tourism development and excessive shrimp farming. As Devinder Sharma has stressed, the devastation wrought by this Wall of Water was “the outcome of an insane economic system – led by the World Bank and IMF – that believes in usurping environment, nature and human lives for the sake of unsustainable economic growth for a few.”8 Nearly 72 per cent of the shrimp farming is confined to Asia, and the expansion of this shrimp farming in India, Thailand, Indonesia and elsewhere, has been specifically at the cost of tropical mangrove forests — amongst the world’s most important ecosystems. Here as elsewhere, the priorities of the World Bank were guided by concern for profits not people, greed not need, despite many warnings by environmentalists about the potential impact of the loss of mangrove forests. Sharma points out that at the very time the tsunami struck, logging companies were busy axing mangroves in the Aceh province in Sumatra for exports to Malaysia and Singapore. “Ecologists tell us that mangroves provide double protection — the first layer of red mangroves with their flexible branches and tangled roots hanging in the coastal waters absorb the first shock waves. The second layer of tall black mangroves then operates like a wall withstanding much of the sea’s fury. In addition, mangroves absorb more carbon dioxide per unit area than ocean phytoplankton, a critical factor in global warming.” This market-driven eco-collapse that lay behind the disastrous effect of the tsunami has been underplayed by the capitalist media.

Spectacle’s Schizophrenia

      Indeed, at the heart of media treatment of the tsunami’s havoc is a kind of schizophrenia in the face of the everyday tragedy of misdevelopment and inequality that ravages the Global South. At the core of the response by neoliberal corporate governments is a similar schizophrenia. The extraordinary, perhaps excessive ‘tidal wave’ of charity masks an underlying indecency in the way our “spectacle” world is organized, its fundamental dehumanizing indifference to the massive death of the poor. Natural disaster is a natural candidate for media hype. And charity hype. Horrific suffering of the innocent momentarily turned into the Spectacle of the Month, a barrage of benefit concerts, while the vast oppression that much of humanity suffers every day in the poorest two-thirds of the world remains endlessly invisible: the more than 2 million who will die this year of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa, the 900,000 who will die of malaria, the 11 million AIDS orphans in Africa at this very moment, the 2.7 billion on our planet who live on less than 2 dollars a day.

      Certainly 12/26 has been the most media-dramatized natural catastrophe in modern memory. As Mike Whitney notes: “This is where the western press really excels: in the celebratory atmosphere of human catastrophe. Their penchant for misery is only surpassed by their appetite for profits. … The manipulation of calamity is particularly disturbing, especially when disaster is translated into a revenue windfall. … Simply put, tragedy is good for business. When it comes to Iraq, however, the whole paradigm shifts to the right. The dead and maimed are faithfully hidden from view. … The uneven coverage (of Iraq and the tsunami) highlights an industry in meltdown. Today’s privately owned media may bury one story, and yet, manipulate another to boost ratings. They are just as likely to exploit the suffering of Asians, while ignoring the pain of Iraqis.”9

Iraq and 12/26

      Like Whitney, Rebecca Solnit compares the two: “The tsunami has been treated as an occasion when we should know as much as possible, see as much as possible, feel as much as possible, give as much as possible. You can look at the superabundant photographs of those scenes of devastation, those bodies contorted with grief and loss, and extrapolate from them that the assault on Fallujah must have left orphans with the same blank, stunned looks on their faces, mothers without children contorted with the same unbearable grief, must have shattered homes, families, lives, hopes with the same kind of physical force. To realize this is to realize how much imagery — or its lack — shapes our response to both disasters.”10 The anti-war movement needs to seize on these contradictions, bringing home to ordinary Americans their split consciousness: the hypocrisy of gala charity drives for tsunami victims and profusive ‘giving’ — to ease our consciences — while our army and corporations wage a war literally against the world.

Compassion and Victimization as Control

      Harsha Walia stresses that “political global compassion is often an ideology of political and social control couched in euphemisms and contradictions of humanitarian intervention … Let us be clear that there is no doubt that humanitarian work in order to save lives and provide adequate access to food and shelter is absolutely necessary. But the larger context must never be lost: international aid and NGO work will largely defuse the anger of those affected by the tsunami. … The power and anger of the people has again been channeled into victimization to curb any political resistance.”11 Central here is the entire hierarchical structure of much aid, top-down, dispersed by international governments and NGOs. Hand-outs construct a whole curriculum in the inculcation of dependency, drying up the wellsprings of self-sufficiency. Reinforcing hierarchical structures that serve well ruling class interests. The governments in all the affected countries have sought to build a consciousness of victimization by ‘natural disaster’ to deflect public anger.

      Another aspect of such a frenzy of focus is the “tsunami relief industry,” largely Western, that rushes in with NGOs and bureaucrats quite literally to “exploit an emergency to reproduce their own bureaucracies,” for their own benefit, to justify their own existence, as detailed in an insightful article on the “accomplices of destruction.”12 As Arundhati Roy reminds us: “NGOs … defuse political anger and dole out as aid or benevolence what people ought to have by right. They alter the public psyche. They turn people into dependent victims and blunt the edges of political resistance. … They unwittingly reinforce racist stereotypes and re-affirm the achievements, the comforts, and the compassion (the tough love) of Western civilization. They're the secular missionaries of the modern world.”13

      Social anarchists need to be speaking out, telling people this calamity was in significant part preventable: you are the victims of the human greed on which this system is founded, you should be damn angry. We need to contemplate how to make this disaster a ‘politicizing’ factor for self-action and rage against governments, statecraft élites and their inevitable failures — instead of one more lever for intensifying depoliticization and the passivity of the victim. That is also fed by the culture of ‘fate,’ what Thai Buddhists call ‘duang,’ acquiescence in the face of ‘predestined’ oppression and suffering.

Class and Tsunami

      The poorest classes, other than Western tourists seeking sea & sun, have borne the brunt of this disaster. Yet it is useful to recall: “the countries affected by the tsunami are not poor. India is a nuclear superpower and Thailand is a rapidly developing nation. The Thai prime minister and his political cronies are multi-millionaires. The issue is the distribution of wealth and power in these societies. No country in the area has a welfare state or a properly organised emergency service — there are almost no public ambulances. Thailand’s government spends millions on the military, yet this huge military is there to guard the interests of the ruling class, not to protect the ordinary population.”14 Moreover, much aid to ‘rebuild tourism’ will assist the wealthy, for example the owners of the up-scale now devastated hotels on Phuket Island, Phi Phi and in the Khao Lak macro-resort in Thailand. How much will assist the working people, the fisherfolk, the vendors on the edges of the tourism centers who have lost their livelihood? And the Thai papers are already reporting new multi-million dollar land speculation deals by Big Business in the devastated areas, some of it rumored to be foreign capital.15 Unlike their workers, many large businesses and hotels hit by the Cataclysm have insurance.

      There has also been a vicious tidal wave of racist discrimination in Thailand against the many thousands of migrant Burmese workers who are the double victims of this tragedy.16 In the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, Dalit (so-called ‘Untouchables’) tsunami survivors are being denied access to basic relief because their presence or touch is ‘polluting.’ There are horrific stories of discrimination, mainly by other tsunami survivors. The Indian government and privileged élites have done little to stop this. Moreover, “the majority of the Dalits have lost their livelihood, and unlike the fishermen, many of whom have assets such as boats which can be repaired, the Dalits live on subsistence incomes and have nothing to fall back on”.17 The Great Wave’s havoc acts to magnify old prejudices in the society, riven by class and caste.

The Tsunami and its Geopolitics

      Aceh, a classic ‘periphery of a periphery,’ is one of the single most impoverished corners on the planet. Significantly, it is virtually run by the Indonesia military, long suppressing the GAM, its movement for independence. GAM is an anti-colonial autonomy movement that goes back to the struggle against the colonizing Dutch, then the Japanese military occupiers, and now the Indonesian government. Sri Lanka bears some resemblance to Sumatra. Likewise, vast poverty, ex-colonial dependencies, likewise fisher family economies, ditto a longstanding struggle for autonomy in the Tamil north. The government in Bangkok also faces an escalating crisis, a militant movement of Thai-Malay ethnic autonomy and separatism in its deepest south. Troops in all three countries were more busy deployed against these internal insurgencies than mobilized to assist the Cataclysm’s victims.18 This is another reason why Washington found it convenient to step in with such a massive ‘military humanitarian’ presence, conveniently attuned to its own geopolitical interests and imperatives across the region.

      Indeed, Bush’s Pentagon is eager to reenter its old Vietnam War era military base U-tapao in Chonburi province 90 miles south of Bangkok.19 Washington has been pressing Bangkok for the past 18 months to allow it to use Thailand as its new “forward positioning” site facilitating its armed forces in the war against terrorists in Southeast Asia.20 Now that door has been opened, as Thailand is made a “regional hub” for a massive redeployment of military equipment and personnel, with the linchpin at U-tapao. And the pictures beamed across the planet of American soldiers helping distressed Moslem survivors in Indonesia is engineered to ‘improve’ Washington’s ‘image’ in the Moslem world and beyond, while at the same time reproducing and demonstrating capitalism’s military hegemony. Socialists in Sri Lanka (New Left Front) have also called for the removal of American troops there: “On the one hand, it is an opportunity for the US to gain a foothold with designs to suppress the LTTE and control the Tamil liberation struggle on behalf of local capitalist rulers. On the other, it also provides an opening for the US not only to arm-twist Sri Lanka to go along with global capitalism, but also to use Sri Lanka’s strategic location to consolidate its neo-colonial agenda all the more blatantly.”21

      The spectrum of tsunami relief can be read as a lesson in the geopolitics of the manipulation of image and bolstering of power and influence in the name of compassion. Condoleeza Rice called the tsunami a “marvelous opportunity” for showing the world how “generous” the U.S. is. It has also been a boon for Japan, China and India, major geopolitical players in the region.22

      Part of our own anti-authoritarian politics of autonomy and solidarity should be a heightened understanding of the independence struggles of the GAM in Aceh, the Tamils on Sri Lanka and the Muslim insurgents, fighting a bloody often perversely vicious struggle for greater autonomy and identity in the Thai deep South. All three of those movements are stamped by the political heritage of colonialism, British and Dutch, extended into our own era.

Communalist Alternatives to Social Atomization?

      An anarchist network of socialist communities grounded in Mutual Aid and radical Direct Democracy and self-help, self-organization, would know better how to respond to disaster. It would be better prepared by assuring that what safeguards exist are equally shared, not reserved for Hawaii, Japan, and the California coast. It would redirect the vast expenditures on the military towards help for the people. The networks of associated communities and regions would be able to distribute assistance where needed more equitably, more rapidly and without the vast corruption now associated with NGOs and their work, in which humanitarian aid is channeled through hierarchies of authority. The people would have had a proper system of information and education about the danger of massive Walls of Water. A natural moral of this horrific tale is the need for a true Science for the people. Anarchist information structures would tap the reservoirs of traditional folk knowledge, reconnecting popular consciousness with the Earth, as e.g. in Thailand, where Chao Lay nomadic fisher communities on the Andaman coast, so-called ‘sea gypsies,’ read the warning signs according to ancient sea lore and were able to flee in time to higher ground.23

      Fundamental here are basic eco-socialist water management, sustainable rural communities, a proper infrastructure of roads, adequate health care, halting the destruction of mangrove forests and restoring them. Moreover, decentralized empowerment would mean working class people doing far more for themselves on the ground where they are. This is grassroots Mutual Aid in action, of which there are countless untold examples in this disaster: tales that socialists need to salvage and retell. “People from the town of Beslan, who recently lost their children, have donated all they can. Millions of ordinary people rush to help their fellow humans when disaster strikes. … All this flies in the face of those who mock us when we talk about a new world of human solidarity.”24

Learning from Cuba

      One socialist model is the Cuban approach to natural disasters. A 2004 study by Oxfam "Weathering the Storm: Lessons in Risk Reduction from Cuba” analyzes the highly effective Cuban system of centralized, planned organization based on mass participation that has saved many lives during natural disasters. Its work is based on a national plan, formulated both from above and at the grass roots level, which relies on mass organizations. The national plan for disaster preparedness is refined and worked on every year, from the highest levels to the neighborhoods and block associations. Cuba’s education and organization for disaster preparedness is worth learning from: “Its struggle to overcome the effects of hurricanes and natural disasters by integrating its disaster mitigation work within the general framework of socialist planning and organization, despite its extreme material limitations, shows that in the natural world humanity can take increasing control over its destiny.”25 The Cuban top-down system of course differs significantly from anti-authoritarian ideals and structures. But libertarian socialists should be prepared to learn from the laboratory of experimental social reality. Cuba is one such laboratory.

Getting Free

      James Herod’s social-anarchist vision of a macro-network of neighborhoods centered on households (units of roughly 200 people) and projects (virtually all productive activities), managed cooperatively by a Household Assembly and Home Assemblies, would provide a far more thickly meshed network to deal with any kind of crisis, through self-help and mutual aid, as would the small peer circles (units of 30-50 people) he contemplates. In his imaginative architecture of freedom, the Home Assembly is the core social creation, the neighborhood governing itself, radical direct democracy. Part of what the tsunami has shown us once again is that we are far too isolated, too atomized, in the present capitalist social order, even at the level of fisher household and village on the Indian Ocean coasts. When did people there ever assemble in larger numbers except perhaps for entertainment or worship? Herod’s ideas about hands-on autonomy, horizontality and real community, its structures and physiology, prefigure another world that is possible.26

      Reading the tsunami in the light of the responses of a capitalist world, its nation-states and international organizations and media, “[w]e ought to organize in precisely the opposite way: with no centralized control but with millions – maybe many millions – of autonomous grassroots groups, each group based in a particular locality, able to understand in detail the problems that confront its own community, in order to work effectively towards their resolution. … We need what I termed the rurification of our cities. … We don’t need any privileged élites. We need mutual aid, mutual trust and mutual respect.”27 And structures for channeling and energizing resistance. Those autonomous groups now forming are, in John Pilger’s words, “part of a movement against inequality and poverty and war that has arisen in the past six years and is more diverse, more enterprising, more internationalist and more tolerant of difference than anything in my lifetime.”28


* An abridged version of this article appears in Slingshot, #85, Feb.2005, p.3.

1 Harsha Walia, “The Tsunami and the Discourse of Compassion,” ZNet,

2 Giles Ji Ungpakorn (Workers Democracy, Bangkok), “A ‘natural’ disaster made worse by the profit system,” Socialist Worker, 8 Jan 2005, href="; see also the insightful interview with Mike Davis, “The burden falls on the poorest societies,” Socialist Worker, 7 Jan 2005, href="

3 “What if an early warning had been given?,” The Nation (Bangkok), 31 Dec 2004, 2004-12-31&usrsess= As a ranking Thai official noted: “The important factor in making the decision was that it’s high season and hotel rooms were nearly 100-per-cent full. If we had issued a warning, which would have led to an evacuation, [and if nothing happened], what would happen then? Business would be instantaneously affected.” Take note that the full URL includes the part in red, which follows the part in blue with no space between the two parts.

4 Arthur Lerner-Lam et al., “Simple Science Could Have Saved Thousands,” Los Angeles Times, 30 Dec 2004

5 Fred Goldstein, “Cuba leads world in managing disasters,” Workers World, 20 Jan 2005,

6 See the World Forum of Fisher Peoples for much insightful material and reports, especially on local fisherfolk organizing in India and Asia,

7 Michael Schirber, “Scientists Chart Global Disaster Hot Spots,”

8 Devinder Sharma, “Tsunami, Mangroves and Market Economy,” GM Watch MMII, 14 Jan 2005,

9 Mike Whitney, “Iraq Vs. Tsunami; The Duplicity of the Media,” Anarchist People of Color,
of_the_media.html Again, as in Footnote 3, Take note that the full URL includes the part in red, which follows the part in blue with no space between the two parts.

10 Rebecca Solnit, “Sontag and Tsunami” (3 Jan 2005),

11 Walia, op.cit.

12 Thomas Seibert, “Komplizen der Zerstoerung,” Sozialistische Zeitung (Cologne), Feb. 2005,

13 A. Roy, “TIDE? OR IVORY SNOW? Public Power in the Age of Empire,” San Francisco, 16 Aug 2004,

14 Ungpakorn, op. cit.

15 "Profiting from tragedy: foreigners look to scoop up land," The Nation, 10 Jan 2005.

16 Kamonpan, “Tsunami’s Double Victims: A Tidal Wave of Discrimination Against Burmese Migrant Workers,”

17 Justin Huggler, “‘Untouchable’ caste find themselves deprived of tsunami aid,” 22 Jan 2005,

18 Ungpakorn, ibid.

19 Sirinapha, “Tsunami Relief as a Subterfuge? The Pentagon Scrambles to Reenter its Old Thai Air Base,”

20 “Terror Offensive: US Wants Forward Base Here,” The Nation (Bangkok), 12 June 2003,

21 Dr. Vickramabahu, “No to induction of foreign troops!,” International Viewpoint, Jan 2005

22 Jacques Amalric, “The Tsunami and False Friends,” Libération, 20 Jan 2005,

23 “Wisdom of the sea,” Bangkok Post, 17 Jan 2005,; on reconnecting with the Earth, see Breezy’s comments in Slingshot #84, Dec. 2004, p. 9 (

24 Ungpakorn, ibid.

25 Fred Goldstein, “Cuba leads world,” ibid.

26 James Herod, Getting Free (4th ed., 2004),

27 George Salzman, “Stop the U.S. drive for global domination – a call to the world’s people,” 21 Jan 2005,

28 J. Pilger, “The other tsunami,” New Statesman, 10 Jan 2005,

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