Humanities Response to the Tsunami

There have been many deadly natural disasters before, but the December 26th Tsunami in the Indian Ocean caught the imagination of the world. More people saw and were affected by the gruesome pictures than any event before.

A death toll of 225,000 makes this Tsunami the eighth deadliest natural disasters in recorded history affecting so many far-flung countries. Millions more suffer the after effect because they are alive, alone, shorn of loved ones and all possessions. Most of us were aghast, sad and wanted to help save the broken lives, to mend torn bodies and wipe tears from vacant eyes. It propelled us to find our humanity. We opened our hearts and purses to help those in need. Within a couple of weeks, according to the UN about 4 billion dollars had been pledged to help the victims.

According to reports at least 40 percent of Americans contributed in response to the Tsunami, as many did all over the world. They did not brag or claim credit. They simply gave, quietly. It speaks volumes about the generosity, humanity and piety of individuals as Americans, as humans. The pouring in of contributions met the immediate needs of many charities, even overwhelmed some of them. The Nobel peace prize-winning charity, "Doctors without borders", reported that they have enough money committed to Tsunami victims to meet their capacity.

Many governments responded generously as well. Unfortunately the US government, representing us did not show that elegant spirit. It initially pledged $15 million. After accusations of being stingy, the sum was raised to $35 million and a week later to $350 million. Stung by criticism, Colin Powell and others bragged about the American generosity and pointed that the Bush administration was helping non-Christian people, including Islamic countries, and enjoined Muslims to remember that generosity.

This unseemly bragging tainted the nobility of charity. It reduced the effort to buying goodwill to supplant the arrogance in Iraq. Inevitable comparisons followed – 15 million for F-15 fighters, 40 million for Bush inauguration and about 650 million per day spent on war in Iraq. It did not help. Indeed, American people are generous, but the Bush administration is not.

Bush administration tried to sideline the common effort under the UN umbrella by announcing a separate coalition effort, co-opting India, Japan and Australia. Mercifully the co-opted countries let this harebrained idea die quietly.

Faced with natural disasters, we reach for our common humanity. It brings out the best in us. The disasters of our own making such as war, oppression and torture driven by hubris, relentlessly kill, maim and destroy. They reveal the worst in us. They destroy those who face the brunt of human cruelty and corrode those who inflict such horrors.

The two worst effected regions by the Tsunami are Aceh, in Indonesia and Northeastern regions of Sri Lanka. In Aceh, the northernmost region of Sumatra Island, the military has been fighting a brutal war against separatists of the Free Aceh Movement for almost three decades and has kept the province closed to outsiders.

In Sri Lanka a brutal 25-year civil war has claimed 64,000 lives. The war has pitted the government, dominated by the country’s Sinhalese, Buddhist majority, against the Hindu minority of Indian origin, demanding a homeland, under the banner of Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam.

The Tsunami stunned the warring parties in to joining hands to help the people, irrespective of ethnicity or political affiliation, bringing hope for the people caught in the conflict. But three weeks after the Tsunami fissures have already started to appear. According to the UN reports, Tamil Tigers are recruiting young orphans in their militia and Indonesian government has killed some 20 rebels.

The United Nations has a solid record of accomplishment in the areas of humanitarian relief and the advancement of health in poor countries. Reoccurring natural disasters are part of nature. We seem to have realized that helping the needy is our common concern. It is time to stop bickering and strengthen the UN to wield the power of the world opinion to effectively guide the contending parties to a negotiated mutually beneficial peace. It is an opportunity for the US to shed the perfidy of the Iraq war and take a constructive role in strengthening the UN at what it does best. It is our common world institution.

The UN, on the behalf of the humanity should insist that the contending parties in Aceh and Sri Lanka desist from the past violence and with the help of the UN, reach a peaceful settlement. They should not be allowed to destroy what is being rebuilt with the love of our common humanity.