Tsunami: Natural Disaster, Capitalist Crime

The tsunami that ravaged Indian Ocean coasts on December 26 was a horrendous natural disaster. But its devastation was also the result of human crimes – a century of imperialist looting and the inhuman contempt for human life characteristic of capitalism everywhere.

The horror caused by the tsunami staggers the imagination. But George Bush’s piddling initial offer of $15 million in aid, the first evidence of his concern about the disaster three days after it happened, shows the imperialists’ true contempt for peoples of color abroad far more accurately than their subsequent public-relations rhetoric. The sudden outpouring of crocodile tears and the dribbling aid produced by the imperialist governments and corporations in no way makes up for the epoch of superexploitation, human indifference and outright robbery that created the conditions that made the tsunami so deadly.

Why, for example, did all the imperialist-based scientists give no warning to the countries and regions about to be swamped by the tidal wave produced by earthquakes off the coast of Sumatra? The Asian countries are not part of the 40-year old warning system set up for Pacific Ocean tsunamis because of the “high cost” – perhaps a few million dollars. The U.S. spends at least ten times that per day waging war on the Iraqi people, and even the government of poverty-ridden India has enough funds to pay for nuclear weapons. The lack of a modern warning system, along with the communications network to circulate information, is the result of conscious choices by the world’s regimes – the imperialists and their junior partners in crime.

Even without modern warning equipment, scientific authorities knew of the earthquakes and could have sent out calls for evacuation. The tsunami center in Hawaii said it did not know whom to contact – in these days of the Internet! – yet they hurried to inform the U.S. naval base on the Indian Ocean island of Diego Garcia. Scientists in Thailand and Australian diplomats who were able to issue warnings were ordered not to, lest a false alarm damage the profitable tourist industry. Even with belated and disorganized warnings, Sri Lanka and India and countries on the East African coast would have had several hours notice to evacuate.

Secondly, when the waves hit, why was the loss of life so vast? And afterwards why was it so hard to get aid to the stricken people? The Indian Ocean countries are among the poorest on earth; they lack roads, airports, ambulances, communications centers; their structures are often flimsily built for lack of necessary construction materials. In some Indonesian coastal towns, only the stone-built mosques remained standing. The different effects on rich and poor were glaringly evident. This lack of infrastructure was not an accident to be overcome in a few days: it is the work of decades of superexploitation that drains the surplus value produced by “third-world” laborers into the coffers of colonialists and imperialist investors.

The imperialists are seizing the opportunity to gain face among the peoples of the world for their capacity to raise millions of dollars for supplies and to bring ships, helicopters and medical personnel to distant lands. A New York Times headline summed it up: “Tsunami Tests U.S. Forces’ Logistics, but Gives Pentagon a Chance to Show a Human Face.” A useful mask indeed for the war criminals better known for Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib and the obliteration of Fallujah. Colin Powell, touring the victimized regions in another public relations effort, said he had never seen such devastation. But the residents of Fallujah could show it to him. According to British journalist George Monbiot, “The U.S. marines who have now been dispatched to Sri Lanka to help the rescue operation were, just a few weeks ago, murdering the civilians ... smashing the homes and evicting the entire population of ... Falluja.” (The Guardian, Jan. 4.)

Let us remember that the tsunami, deadly though it was, is no match for imperialism when it comes to human slaughter. The widely publicized estimate of 150,000 deaths are of the same order as the 100,000 or more civilian deaths in Iraq as a result of the current imperialist war, just one of hundreds such wars in the 60 years since the previous Indian Ocean tsunami. But even though the 100,000 was a conservative estimate calculated at two prestigious U.S universities – Johns Hopkins and Columbia – and published in the establishment British medical journal The Lancet, it was largely ignored by the bourgeois media. And the numbers of tsunami deaths are far less than the half million or more deaths due to the United Nations-approved blockade of Iraq from 1991 to 2003. The imperialists, including their “do-good” institutions like the U.N., are highly selective in their concern for human life, in wars as well as tsunamis.

It is not only the imperialists who have contributed to the tsunami’s destruction. The Indonesian regime has been fighting a brutal war against an independence movement in Aceh, the energy-rich province directly hit by both the earthquakes and the tsunami. The military has blocked aid workers from reaching people in Aceh other than its own loyalists, stepped up murderous operations against the independence movement and barred journalists from reporting the conflict. Likewise, the Sri Lankan army has blocked the transport of emergency supplies to the war- and water-devastated north of the country run by the Tamil Tigers. The Thai military has kept its troops fighting alleged terrorists rather than mobilizing them to help in the disaster. For all the concern shown for the disaster victims in these countries, little support has been voiced for the peoples’ right to self-determination against pro-imperialist regimes determined to use the tsunami as a cover for escalating repression.

Whereas a good part of the human race has shown immense sympathy for the victims, across national, racial and ethnic divisions, and generously offered funds and other aid to the affected regions, the capitalists’ hypocritical decency surfaces only when compelled by overwhelming public opinion or when they have some other axe to grind. The American ruling class has openly stated the dominant reason for its aid: it is an instrument of foreign policy designed to win the “hearts and minds” of Muslims, an objective in imperialism’s “war on terrorism.” The U.N. has only a few dozen aid workers in areas like Aceh, largely because the United States has campaigned for decades to cut the aid budgets of unprofitable outfits like UNICEF and the World Health Organization. And all imperialist aid comes with strings attached. As a general rule, the bulk of imperialist aid packages is tied to requirements that “free trade” be opened up to the benefit of imperialist businesses and that goods purchased with aid money be imported from the donating countries. That is, the imperialists reserve the right to superexploit the workers of the oppressed world to themselves.

Imperialist corporations are as inhuman as the governments that serve them. Exxon-Mobil has a natural gas operation in Aceh that contributes to the company’s multi-billion-dollar annual profits; it suffered a minor disruption from the earthquakes. The company announced that “together with its employees” it would donate a measly $5 million for the victims. A real approximation of humanity, inconceivable under capitalism, would be a policy requiring Western corporations investing in the South to pay higher wages, say, comparable to what unionized workers get in their home countries.

Another key issue is the oppressive international debt. The “G-7” group of leading imperialist countries suspended debt payments from the countries hit by the tsunami, payments that help impoverish poor countries everywhere. (Indonesia, for example, owes over $130 billion, most of it for arms for military repression, not economic development.) The burden of paying the debt is inevitably transferred to the superexploited masses.

The tsunami devastation demands more than donations. Working-class organizations in the imperialist countries must demand cancellation of these debts. In response to suggestions that the debts be cancelled, Australian Prime Minister John Howard, acting as the imperialists’ lawyer, argued that debt relief for these countries would be unfair to other indebted nations! His inhumanity is actually logical, given capitalism’s profit-driven imperatives. All the indebted countries should get together and repudiate the imperialist debt! The victims of the “structural adjustment programs” of the World Bank and IMF are just as entitled to justice as the victims of the tsunami.

The cruelty of nature at this level is occasional, but the viciousness of capitalism and the imperialism it breeds is inherent in the system. The consequences of the tsunami are powerful arguments for getting rid of capitalism once and for all. A classless communist society would deliver aid out of human solidarity, not maneuveristic hypocrisy. Science would be used for human needs, not militarism and profits. And the gross misery and inequality that pervades the imperialist-run world would become horrors of an unlamented past.