Just a few short hours after the devastating tsunami hit the coast of Sri Lanka, three Vietnam era military helicopters swung into action.
The three taxpayer-funded units flew over their dead and dying countrymen and women in the city of Galle to land on the roof of a luxury spa resort.
Their intended cargo was 71-year old former German chancellor, Helmut Kohl. Thousands of Sri Lankans needing urgent medical treatment, food and water would have to wait. As far as the government was concerned, Kohl, an ageing, overweight statesman, who proudly stated that he intended to continue his holiday, was the priority.
In the Sri Lankan government's eyes, clearly some survivors were more equal than others. This is disaster relief, South East Asian style. If you think nature is solely responsible for who was worst affected, think again. It's not widely acknowledged, but poverty and government corruption is just as responsible for determining who is getting help and when. And unfortunately, it will take more than a global catastrophe to undo the politics of poverty and influence. The very fact that the military had helicopters is itself a sign of how out of balance priorities are in Sri Lanka.
Most Sri Lankans live in the kind of poverty we just can't fathom in the West. And yet, money that should be used to feed, educate and heal the masses goes towards equipping a military which isn't afraid to use its power and might against its own citizens. Millions of dollars are spent on this military hardware while the 'lucky' Sri Lankans toil in US owned factories earning $1 a day sewing $100 denim jeans. It's a similar story in Indonesia. In this crippled country, the government is focusing on protection of its territories rather than aid.
Jakarta has long been paranoid that the people of Aceh will break away from the faux democracy which seeks to control the northern region down the barrel of a gun. And even a tsunami that wipes out more than 100,000 Indonesians isn't going to change that. According to Indonesia's army chief, General Rayamizard Ryacudu, a third of all soldiers deployed to the Aceh region are there not to provide aid, but to secure control of disputed territories.
In other words, while the people of Aceh are counting and burying their dead, the military is embarking on a cynical land grab. This is why it's important to understand not just who is donating money to the relief effort, but how foreign government figures control where the money is being spent.
In another example, in the first five days after the tsunami hit, the Sri Lankan government directed foreign aid to the tourists regions in the south, ignoring harder hit areas in the north and east.
Why? Well, it might have something to do with the fact that the north and the east are home to Tamil rebels. Why save your enemy when you're only going to have to kill them later anyway, some might say. This also may explain why hospitals in the east have the least government funding. Eastern doctors amputate limbs simply because they don't have the basic pins and screws needed to heal what would be considered routine bone breaks in the West.
As Australian volunteer doctor David Young said this week: "Too many of these people will be left crippled, not because their injuries are that bad, but because the treatment they are receiving is woefully inadequate." So how can Australians change this system which favors the wealthy and connected over the poor and oppressed? It's really up to the Prime Minister who must ensure that Australians decide the destination of any aid money donated by our government or people.
Diplomatically, this won't be easy, but in fact, John Howard's uneven relationships with South East Asian governments might just help in this case. The people who control these governments aren't always Howard's friends, so he need not worry about offending them by insisting relief efforts are fair.
I am so proud of the ordinary Australians who have pledged millions of dollars to help. It just goes to show that when help is genuinely needed, Australians care, and can be counted on. But now it is vital that the Prime Minister insists the aid is sent to the needy regardless of their politics or social position. These people are already victims of a natural disaster. We can't sit back and let them be victims of politics as well.
Author's E-Mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Herald Sun, Melbourne
Posted January 8, 2005