Tsunami, Aid & Imperialism

Pratyush Chandra


1. The Tragedy Engineered!

Colin Powell while heralding the American aid missions for tsunami affected areas rightly summed up the American Spirit, “I think it does give to the Muslim world and the rest of the world an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action”.(1) As if the Christian god has created the devastation to allow the American angels to show kindness, and the third world simpletons to hail the virtuosity, lordship and “freedom” of the Americans. That their wretchedness would make them understand that it is for their good that the Americans make war, as it is for them that now the Americans give aid, and that they must not hate America’s “freedom”. But it was William Blake who once said in one of his prophetic poems:

Pity would be no more,
If we did not make somebody Poor

You make us poor to serve us! Facts do sufficiently tell us that the enormity of the devastation caused by tsunami could have been avoided. Even if it was not consciously designed, the callousness with which the warning of the impending disaster was treated and disseminated is peculiar of the imperialist mind set and work strategy. Their techniques fail and targets are misfired only when others are victims, giving the imperialists opportunity to show off all those things what they say. It happened in Bush’s first tenure on 9/11 (he found a mission!) and it happened now during Bush’s second tenure.

The bulletins issued by the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center (PWTC) show a striking irregularity exclusively with regard to the particular “megathrust” earthquake that hit Indonesia on December 26 leading to the Tsunami waves. It had predicted and reported every small and big seismic event before that particular quake in the region judging their implications. However, this biggest earthquake was casually reported. Even when the warning was issued, it was selectively disseminated – “according to the statement of the Hawaii based PTWC, advanced warning was released but on a selective basis. Indonesia was already hit, so the warning was in any event redundant and Australia was several thousand miles from the epicentre of the earthquake and was, therefore, under no immediate threat.” Of course, “the US Military and the State Department were given advanced warning. America’s Navy base on the island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean was notified.” The excuse came, “We didn’t have a contact in place where you could just pick up the phone.” But several Indian Ocean countries are members of the Tsunami Warning System! One witnesses the unprecedented activism of the US military in the region after the disaster, yet they did not care to disseminate their foreknowledge of the impending calamity!(2) Although the monopoly over information and its selective dissemination are necessary to remain powerful and are strategically very important to have an edge in the imperialist (politico-economic and military) competition in the era of “imperialism without colonies”, it would be premature to assess the degree of deliberation in this particular case, without the danger of being hounded as a conspiracy theorist (poor Ward Churchill!).

2. The Game Plan

The immediate effect of the Tsunami disaster was that it shifted the whole attention away from Iraq where the American imperialism was caught compromised and naked in bloody orgy. Lately the invasion in Iraq was increasingly marred by the revelation of sex ‘scandals’ and other heinous atrocities committed by the American torturers to humble insurgencies. Insurgencies themselves were on increase along with the intensification of global protests against the illegitimate elections. Moreover, the US needed other venues of expansion for further strengthening its strategic and political economic control globally, while its lesser allies went on with cleaning the mess it has left, and its competitors still coping with the shocks in the money market due to the dollar’s instability (showing their dependence on the US economy).

On the other hand, the European impotence was starkly evident right from the beginning. Initially, the European powers accused the US for being indifferent in providing aid to the devastated region, but later they were themselves left behind as militarist activism allowed the latter to be swifter and far more visible in the whole effort. The unilateral announcement of the coalition, with only Japan, Australia and India invited, came as a jolt to the European confidence. However, after a few days only, Powell announced that “the coalition will be disbanded and folded into the broader UN-led operations” as “it served its purpose”. In fact, “the “core group” was announced by President George W. Bush at his Crawford, Texas ranch on December 29 as he tried to dispel criticism that his initial reaction to the disaster was slow and the initial US financial aid of $15 million stingy.” (3) The “stingy” US made others feel stingier. The European countries were found concentrating “support in areas where their nationals have suffered more”.(4) Jeremy Seabrook rightly concludes, “For the western media, it is clear that a tourist’s tragedy is more important than that of the ‘locals’”. This is true not only of the media but even the governments there. They seem to believe that “in death, there should be hierarchy”.(5)

Further, the US (like its competitors) found a new veil of aid to cover its shame and new accomplices, like India and Sri Lanka, with old ones once again readied for the occasion. Regarding what foreign aid is, Hattori has rightly pointed out, “What most clearly defines foreign aid is the symbolic power politics between donor and recipient. Aid practice transforms material dominance and subordination into gestures of generosity and gratitude. This symbolic transformation, in turn, euphemizes the material hierarchy underlying the donor-recipient relation. In this process, recipients become complicit in the existing order that enables donors to give in the first place.”(6) Powell’s tenor in the statement quoted in the beginning starkly attests this conceptualization of the foreign aid. The tsunami tragedy provided US imperialism an opportunity to refurbish its old bases established at the time of the Korean, Vietnamese Wars and other occasions, and to articulate actively with regional forces and “powers” once again. It allowed the regeneration of the “donor-recipient” relation in the region, which was getting loose in the post-Cold War era. The regional ‘rentier’ interests that were once precious allies in the coalition against the Soviets went dissatisfied and independent due to a divergence of the imperialist concentration, and even posed threat to global hegemonies by fuelling fundamentalist populisms (which in essence diverted genuine popular anti-systemic sentiments). In the tsunami aid drive, these interests in Indonesia, Malaysia etc can once again be harnessed and militarized. On the other hand, the US military for the first time openly traversed through South Asia, which was relatively independent due to its ‘relative’ non-alignment. Thus, one can say that the Tsunami tragedy has allowed an overhauling of the “international” power relations in the region under the US hegemony.

3. The Politics and Economics of the Indian Aid

India, which has been ever ready to respond to the slightest gesture from the US for military cooperation in the post-Cold war era, was flattered to find the open invitation to join the US led “tsunami coalition”. It did not wait to rethink its old stance to strengthen the UN, which is increasingly being used as toilet paper by the imperialist forces. However, what they call, “inter-operability” and “mil-to-mil” relations were already at place after 9/11, where they could jointly visualise, “The U.S.-India defense relationship has grown to a stage where the future is clear. It is one in which the two militaries can work in unison to combat the regional and global challenges of terrorism, administer peacekeeping and humanitarian action, keep the high seas safe for the movement of commerce and energy, take the lead in preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and be a force for stability in Asia.”(7) Joint military and naval exercises in the regions of insurgencies like Northeast India and in the Indian Ocean have already become frequent. Tsunami ‘coalition’ gives this cooperation an immediate purpose and provides an opportunity to legitimize the relationship. It creates, at the cost of the victims, an occasion to have an overview of the region and to build up the infrastructure necessary for pre-empting any future bellicosity in the region uncomfortable for the global power relations.

The snake charmers of non-alignment themselves seem to be charmed away by Bush’s infantile abracadabra of “strong partners”, “against evil”, “for virtues”. However, who knows better about the materialist function of such chants than we Indians whose ancestors would bring rain and grow plants using magical spells and incantations. The Indian ruling class has its politico-economic motive to go into the relationship with the cowboy. After India refused the foreign aid for its own victims, and the Indonesian President thanked India for its aid and assistance to Indonesia, the Indian External Affairs Minister, Natwar Singh’s rattled proudly that “they were lumping us with the others but now we are seen separate offering our help and assistance”.(8) But is this pride mere vanity? Does not the politics of foreign aid, which applies to the assessment of every other imperialist forces hold true for India too? Is India the only country devoid of any crass Shylockian motive behind “its gestures of generosity and gratitude”? Do they not euphemize the “material hierarchy”?

One pop intellectual in India, while writing an eulogy on the tsunami “coalition”, says, “The immediate motivation for the four-nation cooperation involving India and the U.S. is one simple fact that no one country can manage the consequences of the extraordinary disaster we are confronted with today.” But he himself provides the clue to the hidden motive – “India and the U.S. also want to ensure the security of energy supplies from the Gulf region. They also seek to ensure the safety of sea-lanes, which carry oil and a lot other commerce in the Indian Ocean. While these broad common objectives were recognised, there had been no real occasion for the two countries to actually work together in managing security in the Indian Ocean. The tsunami disaster has provided such an opportunity.”(9)

The Sri Lankan socialists perhaps know the meaning of aid in clearer terms. The United Socialist Party has demanded the withdrawal of all the foreign (American, British and Indian) armies that have arrived in the name of tsunami aid. They claim to have “received a very good response when they exposed the hypocrisy and true intentions of US imperialism and also of Indian imperialism. Both are allegedly deploying troops for humanitarian reasons but, in truth, are aiming for increased economic and military control in the region.”(10) For them the danger is quite evident as both the US and India have the similar reading of the ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, where both have dubbed the LTTE to be terrorist.(11) Further, India has increasingly defined its “national security interests” in Bushist terms – perceiving every conflict in its neighbourhood and South Asia as threat to its security. It recently pulled out of the SAARC meeting explicitly citing the recent events in Bangladesh and Nepal as reasons.

In the particular case of Sri Lanka, India has sufficient political economic interests to take care of. “India has recently become an important investor as a result of the India–Sri Lanka Free Trade Agreement… Indeed, India was the largest investor in Sri Lanka in 2002.”(12) Further, with regard to the aid to Indonesia, too, the cat was almost out of the bag, when Natwar Singh met the Indonesian President. “Apart from the assistance sent so far, we could also offer them concessional credit for reconstructing roads, buildings, harbours, ten units of fully equipped hospitals”.(13) Washington Post saw India’s contribution in relief efforts as a sign of its emergence as regional power, and finds, “Although India still accepts some foreign aid, such help is declining in importance with the country’s rapid economic growth. In the last few years, India has begun to transform itself into a donor nation, offering lines of credit to developing countries in Africa and elsewhere.”(14) Hence, India is perfectly in line with the other imperialist forces in capitalizing on other people’s sufferings.

4. Conclusion

All shades of progressives, leftists and relatively conscious human beings booed when Bush talked about the American compassion and generosity. The tactic to divert attention from the brutality of Iraqi occupation was evident to everybody. Anti-imperialists consistently and timely exposed the real facts behind Bush’s rhetoric and Tsunami tragedy, while continuing to irritate the imperialists and their media hogs by not allowing them any rest and exposing their plans and blunders in the Middle East.

In the tsunami-affected regions, as in Sri Lanka, people are categorically stating that, “The tsunami aid which is a product of the sacrifices of the working people around the world should go to the needy people directly, as quickly as possible. All the reconstruction and relief distribution should be in the hands of democratically-elected committees of the affected people and the trade unions.”(15) Voices are being increasingly raised against the covert agenda of the new coalitions between the indigenous ruling interests and global hegemonies in the tsunami-affected regions. The Thai people are protesting the increased American military presence after December 26 and disapprove of the proposed build-up of the American military at Utapao air base and in the Gulf of Thailand, which were used in 1967 to station aircrafts for bombing North Vietnam.(16) Further, the Indonesian ruling elite had considered the American ‘humanitarian’ and military aid an opportunity to bring back political legitimacy and stability, similar to what the Americans visualized in it for themselves, according to one American historian, “an opportunity to try to move beyond the frustration of Iraq and pre-emption and tensions with the Islamic world… an area where the U.S., with its financial resources and its logistical capability, can work in a cause that no one can argue.”(17) But all these seem to be illusory at least till now; the corrupt polity in Indonesia seems to make things furthermore complex, while the Americans always find their dream of being welcome as liberators rebuffed – Vietnamese rebuffed it, Iraqis are continuing to do so, and even the tsunami victims, howsoever they are helpless, are not inclined to do any different.


(1) “Powell: US values in action”, CNN (5 January 2005), available at http://www.cnn.com/SPECIALS/2004/tsunami.disaster/

(2) Michel Chossudovsky, “Discrepancies in the Tsunami Warning System” (14 January 2005) available at http://globalresearch.ca/articles/CHO501C.html and “Foreknowledge of a Natural Disaster” (29 December 2004) available at http://globalresearch.ca/articles/CHO412C.html

(3) “US disbands India, Japan, Aus tsunami group”, posted on Indian Express website (6 January 2005) http://www.expressindia.com/fullstory.php?newsid=40427

(4) “EU downplays transatlantic row over Asia aid”, posted (5 January 2005) on http://www.eubusiness.com/afp/050105162445.jhwxapg9

(5) Jeremy Seabrook, “In Death, Imperialism lives on”, The Guardian (31 December 2004)

(6) Tomohisa Hattori, “Reconceptualizing Foreign Aid”, Review of International Political Economy 8:4 (Winter 2001)

(7) ‘People , Progress, Partnership – The Transformation of US -India Relations’, available at http://usembassy.state.gov/posts/in1/wwwhppp.html

(8) PTI, “Indonesia praises India for tsunami help”, Indian Express (8 January 2005), available at http://www.expressindia.com/fullstory.php?newsid=40490

(9) C. Raja Mohan, “India and the Indian Ocean: from isolation to multilateralism”, The New Nation, (7 January 2005), available at http://nation.ittefaq.com/artman/publish/printer_15238.shtml

(10) “Sri Lanka after the Tsunami”, The Socialist (22 January 2005), available at http://www.socialistparty.org.uk/2005/377/index.html?id=pp4.htm

(11) C. Raja Mohan, op cit. “India and America also now share the objective of peace and stability in South Asia. They have a joint interest in countering terrorism and extremism in the region. In Sri Lanka for example, New Delhi and Washington are both opposed to terrorism by the Tamil Tigers and seek to maintain the unity and territorial integrity of the island nation.”

(12) UNCTAD 2003 Investment Policy Review: Sri Lanka

(13) PTI, op cit.

(14) John Lancaster, “India Takes Major Role In Sri Lanka Relief Effort: Aid Is Sign of Nation’s Emergence as Regional Power”, Washington Post (20 January 2005). Available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A22194-2005Jan19?language=printer

(15) Same as in (8)

(16) “Tsunami Relief as a Subterfuge? The Pentagon Scrambles to Reenter its Old Thai Air Base”, available at http://globalresearch.ca/articles/SIR502A.html

(17) David E. Sanger, “Aid Summit Talks in Jakarta: U.S. Is Facing a Choice and an Opportunity”, The New York Times (02 January 2005), available at


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