Politicking over the tsunami: Blair and Brown try to turn back the wave of electoral mistrust

Jan/Feb 2005

The fourth worst earthquake since 1900, killing probably far more than the current estimate of 150,000 people in south Asia, was not enough to prevent Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Brown from turning their first formal opportunity to speak about this catastrophe into an occasion for electioneering demagogy.

And that is no surprise. But the journalists of the British press could hardly contain themselves, pointing once more to the personal rivalry between these two political leaders - who had scheduled themselves to speak on the 6 January at exactly the same time, two days after Blair belatedly returned from his holiday in Egypt.

As if their personal rivalry makes the slightest difference in a political establishment which is 100% united in its solidarity with the interests of the City of London! The reality was that both of them spoke primarily with their political futures in mind. And even if Brown's Edinburgh speech was designed to show that he can fit into Cinderella Blair's slipper, Blair showed his own anxieties when asked by a journalist if he was planning to sack Brown after the election. He remonstrated that he was certainly not "taking our re-election for granted". Nor should he!

As regards the tsunami and the New Year launch of Brown's "campaign to end world poverty", however, aspiring world statesman Brown probably succeeded in out-demagoging Blair. His grandiose proposition for a "Marshall Plan for the entire developing world", suggests the doubling of total aid from the rich countries to £27bn a year for the next ten years ...in order to "halve" poverty (not end it then?)! Perhaps Brown thinks that the British electorate has paid no attention to the fact that his domestic policy to halve child poverty in Britain (let alone the world) has still to be achieved, despite his dubious claims to have lifted 1m (out of 3m) out of poverty via his tax credits system!

Anyway, it is one thing to suggest as he did, that "we take the final historic step in delivering debt relief for the debt-burdened countries" and quite another actually delivering even this tiny drop in the ocean. But it probably sounds good to those it is aimed to please - not the rest of the G8 leaders, most of whom have already come out with very similar rhetoric - but the liberal middle class electorate and those among the many charitable organisations and NGOs who were not that keen on the Labour government's invasion of Iraq. Or at least Brown reckons on this, not least because the British public, bombarded from all directions with heart-rending accounts of the tsunami victims, has so far been responding so generously to appeals from the relief fund. Undoubtedly, these days, the government's leaders could do with a bit of public sympathy themselves and hope to get it.

As for Blair's first press conference, if it was meant to be a "malicious challenge" to his partner Brown - which is what the press intimated - it is interesting, if not rather odd, that he should have spent a large part of it congratulating his apparent "rival" Brown on the "superb" and "remarkable" job he has done, including on "getting debt relief agreed(!) for the poorest African countries".

Of course, writing off all Third World debt completely and giving £27bn a year to poor countries - if this actually came to fruition, which is open to question - will not and cannot "unite" a world divided by the requirements of the capitalist system, a class system, whose very basis and raison d'etre is inequality, and where the rich can only remain rich provided the poor get poorer.

But never mind that. Compassion is classless, apparently - and which politician - especially one so tarnished by a bloody, costly and escalating war in Iraq - would not seize the opportunity provided by the tsunami's devastation to try to refurbish his image as someone who, after all, does care about "victims"? Even if this does not apply to the victims of the Blair- and Bush-made tsunami which hit Iraq's Falluja, whose aerial view looks so much like a scaled down version of Sumatra's Banda Aceh today.

The tsunami, and the British dead and missing, will no doubt give plenty more scope over the coming weeks and months for politicians of all the parties to score points off each other, while sanctimoniously claiming to be in total agreement over the need to respect the dead and care for the living, as well as write off poor countries' debts and give more aid. We have already heard as much from the Tories' spokesman on overseas development. They do all have something in common, of course - an equal level of cynicism and hypocrisy.

When warnings might help

The point has been made in some of the press coverage of the tsunami - although not so prominently - that the wave caused by the undersea earthquake took a number of hours to cross the Indian ocean. In fact, according to the Global Security website, "scientists knew in advance that southern Asia was going to be hit by a tsunami, but attempts to raise the alarm were hampered by the absence of early warning systems in the region. Within 15 minutes of Sunday's earthquake, [i.e. at 07.13 local time] the Pacific Tsunami Warning Centre in Hawaii had sent an alert to 26 countries, including Thailand and Indonesia, but struggled to reach the right people. Television and radio alerts were not issued in Thailand until 9am local time - nearly an hour after the waves had hit."

Of course this tsunami occurred over a "fault" in the continental plates which has not caused a significant earthquake in the Indian Ocean region for 150 years. However, given that the Indonesian region is one of the most "seismically active" zones of the earth, also with the most active and potentially active volcanoes, it says something that it has no seismic detection centre similar to that in Hawaii. But Indonesia, unlike Hawaii, the USA's 50th state, is in the Third World.

Anyway it is probably correct to assume that those places further away which were hit by the Boxing Day tsunami, could have been alerted, had the systems been in place to do so, in order for them to evacuate their shore areas. Even half an hour's warning would allow people to get onto higher ground.

But this could never have averted the destruction or indeed the deaths and injuries in the worst affected countries and islands. Most of the Sri Lankan and Indian casualties were villagers who rely on fishing to make a living and who are so poor that they live in shanties or huts close by the shore, some in such isolated places that there are no roads to their small settlements and certainly no telecommunications! Their whole way of life is dictated by deprivation and poverty. This is what made them victims. It should be recalled that flooding caused by the monsoon resulted in 140,000 deaths in Bangladesh alone in 1991, and every year kills thousands more, simply because millions of families have nowhere else to carry on living but in the dangerous low-lying delta area.

When Blair, at his post-holiday press conference said: "The tragedy of the tsunami was through the force of nature. The tragedy of Africa is through the failure of man", this was not just another of his usual sound bites, but an abdication of responsibility. Because the drastic consequences of the tsunami are, in fact, largely man-made.

The "tragedy" of the tsunami is that the populations of affected islands and coastal regions were not living in the United States - meaning that if they had the way of life of people in the First World with 4X4s for a quick getaway and modern roads and infrastructure, as well as the warning systems, the communications and civil emergency plans that much of the population of Florida has (so that few if any are killed by hurricanes which regularly kill thousands in the Carribean), then most of those killed would still be alive today. But even this fact - poverty - would not make it a failure of "man", but a failure of Blair, his fellow world leaders and all their predecessors, whose political system maintains a catastrophic world social order. And sure, the same can be said of Africa - but also the Middle East. As Jeremy Seabrook, the writer and campaigner, put it in his Guardian article: .."while the tsunami death toll rises in anonymous thousands, in Iraq disdainful authorities don't do body counts."

Offering the poor a rope...with a knot in it

The vying of different western governments in announcing how much aid they were giving to the crisis-struck areas in south Asia has already been exposed for what it is. On his return from Egypt, Blair had to make much of the British public's "overwhelming" response because the initial pledge of the British government had been only £1m - when within a few days the public had apparently donated £25m - so the government quickly upped its pledge to £50m. The public's donations totalled £76m by the weekend of the 9 January.

Of course, many commentators have also recalled the fact that the money which actually ends up being spend after disasters, such as the Bam earthquake in Iran, Hurricane Mitch in Central America, or the floods in Bangladesh, turns out to be a fraction of what is pledged. We are told that the British government always keeps to its pledges. Strange, but this is not the experience of working people in Britain.

On the BBC's "Question Time" programme, ex-overseas development minister Claire Short had to admit that the £50m pledged by the British government was the total amount that had been already allocated for overseas aid before the tsunami struck. So the obvious question which was asked was whether aid which was meant to go to Darfur in the Sudan, for instance, will just be diverted, with these other "deserving cases" left out, for the time being? And where would the "several hundred million" extra which Blair talked about be coming from?

Even if the "aid" does increase to such a sum, keeping in mind that the cost of the Iraq war to the taxpayer, originally estimated at £3bn, has now gone up to £5bn, one can only find it obscene that the government offers so little to save lives, when it spends so much on ending them.

In fact the attitude of the populations of the tsunami-hit region to the war against Iraq - overwhelmingly condemning it - has probably contributed to the reluctance shown by the Indonesian and Indian governments to be seen as accepting the help of British and US military forces.

Not that they have been offered very much. So far, four British helicopters, three transport aircraft and 400 British military personnel are "helping" in the region.

However, when the government offered, in addition, 120 Gurkhas to go to Aceh, it was met with a point blank refusal from Indonesia's government, which said it was doctors and cash that were urgently needed. Apparently Blair and Straw do not know their history. The Gurkhas were the main British force used during a 4-year "war" against Indonesian troops, which began in 1962, to protect British oil interests in Brunei. At the time, Indonesian president Sukarno, who had succeeded in kicking the Dutch colonialists out of his country, was trying to prevent Brunei, along with other former British colonies from being kept in the imperialist fold. Besides, this same Gurkha battalion is actually funded by the Sultan of Brunei to this day as a gesture of gratitude!

Their debt relief is a write-off

As for the debt "write off" to help the region - which Brown tells us he favours for all poor countries, in particular Africa - there is no actual promise of this even for the 11 countries affected by the tsunami. He has asked the IMF and World Bank to carry out a "needs assessment" to determine if any of the 11 affected countries would be eligible for debt relief, not a "write of". And so far, all that was said on the matter at the "emergency" summit in Jakarta, Indonesia, on the 6 January, was that there would be a temporary freeze on the debt repayments of these countries.

The case of Sri Lanka and Indonesia is still to be considered by the Paris Club of creditors of the World Bank (which comprises 14 of the richer European countries, plus Australia, Japan, Russia and the USA). But banking experts are talking about only a 12-month debt freeze for countries like Thailand, India, Indonesia and Malaysia - which are said to be "in a strong position to overcome the tragedy" after three years of economic growth! Yet Indonesia, for one, still owes £70bn to its creditors - a debt going back to the 1997, misnamed, "Asian" financial crisis.

The case of Honduras which was granted a moratorium after being hit by hurricane Mitch in 1998 and which now spends more on servicing its debt repayments than before the hurricane struck, has been cited by Advocacy International, an NGO which works with indebted countries, as an example of how such freezes work out in the long run.

Brown has also said that Britain will fund 10% of the writing off of poor countries' debts (which ones?) and urged other countries to follow suit. He also wants the IMF's gold reserves revalued - which he claims would pay for a portion of this "writing-off" or, as they call it in true Christian spirit, "debt forgiveness"! But he does not remind the public that debt relief is counted as aid - so that although he boasts that aid has increased since Labour came to power in 1997, in fact if debt relief is deducted, it has actually fallen as a share of national income, year on year.

Throwing a figure of £27bn/year aid for 10 years around as grandiose measure to "halve world poverty" as Brown does, is even more meaningless than it seems, if one takes into account that just to service their debt in 2002, India, Thailand, Indonesia and Sri Lanka between them paid £23bn to their creditors!

There is a further obscenity taking place - which is the British companies who are also vying for the place of the most generous, when it comes to dishing out donations to the tsunami relief effort. For instance, BP pledged £3m, British Telecom £500,000 and Thames Water, which runs most of Jakarta's water system is pledging to ship purification units to Indonesia. Sea Containers, which owns the GNER train company here, but has huge interests in the region, told its employees that it was already donating to the funds locally and that therefore they could not organise their own donation boxes.

Besides the tax relief that these donations allow, what is this, other than an insurance policy to get their feet in the door when it comes to the billions which will be spent on contracts for the reconstruction of the devastated towns and infrastructure - thereby inflating the debt of these countries even more? Indeed much of the "aid" money is going to come straight back to the "donor countries" and into the pockets of big companies' shareholders! If the continuing instability in Iraq has not allowed British companies to get the poodle's share of reconstruction contracts which they felt were due to them, perhaps this huge catastrophe affecting south Asia will give them a second chance.

A disastrous system

The consequences of the tsunami of 26 December have undoubtedly touched the population of Britain and the rest of the western countries' peoples. All the more so because the waves struck resorts in the middle of the "winter" holiday and as a result killed a few thousand western tourists. Although the number of these fatalities is not yet known for sure, it will at some point be known. That is not the case for the vast number of victims from the region itself. Their death toll (between 150-180,000, or more) will never be known precisely.

If this disaster only exposed in front of tourists and aspiring tourists the dire poverty which is shielded from their eyes when they go on their sun-drenched expensive holidays in Phuket or elsewhere in the Third World, that would at least be something. But there has obviously been a lot more. It has indeed revealed the majority of ordinary people's capacity for "compassion", generosity and solidarity.

It is not necessary to be a communist to acknowledge that humanity is incapable of dealing with great catastrophes without uniting its forces in order to put every possible means at the disposal of those who are hit by such catastrophes.

But the world leaders and politicians, who constitute the so-called "international community", while evoking this universal spirit -as Brown did in Edinburgh when he spoke of how the tsunami has "bound us all together" - can only come up with the most derisory "solutions".

Two weeks after the wave struck, there are still tens of thousands who have not even received the most basic help. How many of the estimated 5 million survivors, homeless, deprived of clean water and food, vulnerable to every kind of contagious disease, are going to die in the days and weeks to come for lack of urgent basic help and medical attention?

And yet, what would it take on the part of the industrialised countries to provide, as a matter of urgency, the food and medicines, the doctors and nurses, the prefabs and water purification stations which may make the difference between life and death for many of them? To provide all this and to make sure that it gets to those who need it? The equipment is there in the rich countries, the skills, the goods, and so are means of transporting them to the other side of the world. What is lacking is the social solidarity required. This solidarity exists among the populations, but it comes up against a system in which everything , including the policy of all governments, is determined by the selfish interests of a rich capitalist minority.

Those who will die due to the world's failure to face up to its social responsibility will be victims of this social order - which has shown itself to be far more lethal than "the forces of nature".