17 January 2005

Phuket, Thailand – While politicians around the globe are jockeying to reap advantage from the December tsunami that smote southern Asia, forensic teams from a dozen nations are conducting the gruesome task of trying to identify horribly bloated, decomposing victims of the tidal waves that killed 5,000 in Thailand and 155,000 in neighboring countries.

Canada and Singapore are conducting probably the best targeted, most intelligent relief campaigns in the region, setting a standard for other nations to follow. The United States is providing vitally needed logistic support, the biggest problem faced by the multi-national relief effort in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

The worst damage here occurred on the mainland north of Phuket Island. The beach resort itself suffered only moderate damage in limited areas, has been quickly patched up, and is again ready for resort business.

However, many Asian tourists are staying away from the area because of their belief that ghosts of the tsunami victims are still haunting the ruins. Thai religious groups are now conducting religious ceremonies they believe will set the spirits to rest.

Meanwhile, Thailand is exhuming 2,000 hastily buried victims for identification. We watched grieving families searching photos of brown, bloated corpses, a truly harrowing experience. After only three days in warm tropical water, corpses swell up, eyes bulge, tongues and sexual organs protrude, and the bodies become unrecognizable. Forensic teams are forced to compare dental records, tattoos, or DNA samples to identify the corpses.

Thailand’s prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, who faces upcoming elections, has turned the tsunami disaster into a political bonanza by ably managing the relief effort and rejecting foreign aid.

Thaksin’s recent brutal repression and the slaughter of Muslims in restive southern Thailand have been totally overshadowed by his skillful handling the tsunami disaster. Even so, a nasty insurgency is surging in southern Thailand, almost entirely the result of unnecessarily harsh treatment of the region’s Muslim Thais by the army and police. Look for Thailand to become an important combat zone in the so-called war on terror. The Thai government is playing with fire and has only a few more chances to compromise with its Muslim minority before militants launch a wider guerilla struggle.

While worldwide concern continues for the disaster victims, the plight of animals has been largely ignored. The International Fund for Animal Welfare, a first-rate charity that I personally support, is heading up and coordinating rescue of thousands of starving, abandoned dogs, cats and farm animals across the tsunami region. Many animals lost their owners and feeders during the inundation, and large numbers of tethered animals drowned. Though many animals did sense the oncoming tsunami and managed to escape, those trapped in pens or other enclosures drowned and are now rotting.

I also had a chance to observe Burma’s sparsely inhabited storm-ravaged Andaman Sea coast. Burma’s hermit government understated the number of dead, but damage appears limited, and the real number of victims likely does not exceed 150.

India’s top secret naval base at Car Nicobar on the Nicobar and Andaman Islands, which Delhi plans to use to bar Chinese naval units from the Indian Ocean and Andaman Sea, was almost completely destroyed. The fate of America’s key base at the Indian Ocean archipelago of Diego Garcia remains something of a mystery: Pentagon sources say the base, used to bomb Iraq, escaped damage, while other sources claim the base was seriously damaged.

While Thailand, India and Burma have disaster relief well under control, neighboring Indonesia’s province of Aceh, where 115,000 died, is a mess. Jakarta just ordered foreign aid missions to get out by the end of March and has banned all journalists, human rights groups and aid workers from Aceh.

Indonesia fears foreign powers will move in on oil and gas rich Aceh, where a bloody secessionist rebellion has festered for five decades. A similar process occurred in Indonesia’s former East Timor province, which was detached from Indonesia by foreign pressure under pretense of human rights assistance and is now falling under Australian influence.

In fact, Australia, strongly backed by the US, is fast assuming the role of regional superpower and policeman. Australia’s conservative government is beefing up its navy, amphibious forces and mobile intervention units – all designed for military operations outside Australia.

Indonesia and Australia have been rivals and edgy neighbors since the 1960’s when the late President Sukarno proclaimed `confrontasi’ against the Aussies and Briton. Indonesia fears Australia and the US will use the tsunami crisis to assert influence over the entire region.

The rebellion by the separatist Free Aceh Movement has been totally ignored by the world which showed great sympathy for Christian secessionists of East Timor but none for Aceh’s Muslim separatists.

Aceh was an independent Islamic sultanate until conquered in a bloody war by the Dutch in the 1870’s. The Dutch, who still complain bitterly about harsh German occupation in World War II, acted with far greater ferocity in colonizing Indonesia, massacring tens of thousands of Indonesians and Achenese. Indonesia took over Aceh after gaining independence after World War II. For decades, Achenese Muslims have battled for the return of their lost independence. Indonesia’s brutal repression of the Free Aceh Movement and ordinary Achenese has been ignored by the west and human rights groups.

Indonesia’s muddled disaster relief will likely intensify the rebellion in Aceh which feels itself exploited and neglected by the central government. Washington, however, is branding the Aceh independence movement Islamic terrorists, just as it has done to Muslim separatists in Thailand and the Philippines, a misguided policy certain to create new crises in this turbulent part of southern Asia. Humanitarian relief, alas, is quickly turning into political rivalry.

copyright Eric S. Margolis 2005

We spent a day with Dr James Young, Ontario’s very capable Commissioner of Emergency Management, who, with a group of RCMP officers, has played an important role in identifying tsunami victims., including six dead and 37 missing Canadians. Dr Young led forensic teams in the Swissair crash, World Trade Center attack and Bali bombings. Call him CSI Canada.

This post is in: Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.