The Indian Ocean tsunami: a natural disaster?

Wall-to-wall coverage of the Indian Ocean tsunami has been strangely silent over the role of imperialism in leaving so many people vulnerable to the devastation wrought by natural forces. It has also been a godsend to the US and British governments, who have seized the opportunity to bury the bad news from Iraq.

At 8.25am on 26 December 2004 a giant tsunami struck Banda Aceh, the capital of the province of Aceh at the northern tip of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. Less than two hours later, the wave reached Malaysia and Thailand 400 km to the north. Holidaymakers at the Thai resorts of Khao Lak, Phuket and Phi Phi islands, witnessed walls of water emerging from the sea to batter beach-front hotels with unrestrained fury, in the process sweeping scores of people out to sea, while leaving behind many others drowned in their hotel rooms on what would otherwise have been a perfect day of sunshine and clear blue skies.

Half an hour after hitting Malaysia and Thailand, a series of tsunami struck a 1,000km (600 mile) strip along the eastern seaboard of India, mainly in the state of Tamil Nadu. Simultaneously, colossal waves engulfed the east and south coasts of Sri Lanka, sweeping a train packed with 800 passengers off the rails and killing all of them, while some islands in the low-lying Maldives and India’s Andaman and Nicobar archipelago simply disappeared beneath the giant waves. Pushing on relentlessly, the tsunami hit the east coast of Africa, 6,400km (4,000 miles) from the epicentre, a mere seven hours after it had struck Indonesia.

Trail of devastation

In its wake, the tsunami has left a trail of death, destruction and devastation of biblical proportions. With 160,000 confirmed dead, and tens of thousands missing, it is impossible at the moment to be exact about the eventual death toll, which will probably never be known, partly because so many people were devoured by the sea and their bodies may not be washed ashore for quite some time. In addition, decomposition of the bodies found has in many cases made the task of identification all but impossible. Indonesia alone has lost upwards of 100,000 lives. On a per capita basis, Sri Lanka has suffered more than any other country afflicted by the tsunami, with 30,000 confirmed dead and 7.5 percent of its population rendered homeless.

Thailand’s losses are believed to be nearly 5,000 dead and another 6,000 missing – most probably dead.

The death toll among the European holidaymakers runs into several hundred, with several thousand missing. Scandinavian countries account for the overwhelming majority of the European victims of the tsunami.


The sequence of events resulting in the tsunami ran like this. Approximately 25 minutes prior to the eruption, the Indian and Burmese tectonic plates off the north-west coast of Sumatra shifted, resulting in an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale, the biggest in 40 years. The earthquake in its turn generated gigantic surges of water that travelled across the Indian Ocean at speeds of up to 645kmph (400mph), causing widespread havoc affecting 11 countries. The experience of eyewitnesses in each of the affected places was horribly similar: water beginning to bubble and ebb away from the shore before turning dark and violently forcing its way towards the coast in a churning tsunami 15m (50ft) high.

Danger of epidemics

On top of the dead, several million people find themselves without the basic necessities of life – shelter, food and clean water – while facing the prospect of diseases such as typhoid, cholera, dysentery, malaria, dengue fever and respiratory illnesses, through overcrowding and the contamination of water systems by sewage. Hundreds of thousands of people are in desperate need of medical care and medicines.

Overwhelmingly, those who fell victim to this disaster were the most disadvantaged and the poor. In the words of an Indian government minister, they were “the least educated, the least resourceful and lowest in our society”. With the exception of India, this is equally true of the victims’ countries.

Consequences – not so natural

Though a natural disaster in its origin, the scale of its consequences is by no means natural. Even if politics and economics cannot control natural phenomena, such as earthquakes and the tsunamis spawned by them, they can certainly determine the extent to which countries are affected by natural disasters. Much of the death and destruction in the present case could have been prevented by an inexpensive and fairly simple system of buoys. The Indian Ocean is characterised by the total absence of an international system to track tsunamis, although such a system has been in existence for decades and the US had a monitoring system in place for over half a century. Six buoys installed in the middle of the Pacific, equipped with ‘tsunameters’ – sensors that measure water changes – automatically alert the US’s two tsunami-warning centres in Hawaii and Alaska.

According to Dr Eddie Bernard, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) of the United States, just a few buoys would be enough to do the job. Although scientists had wanted to install two tsunami meters in the Indian Ocean, each costing a mere $250,000, this had not been done for lack of funding.

Nothing better exposes the cynicism and the hypocrisy of the mindless imperialist rhetoric about human rights, democracy and rule of law than the utter contempt for human life shown by the principal imperialist powers, especially the US and Britain, through their deliberate failure to fund a system, costing only a few million dollars, to save hundred of thousands of lives, while at the same time spending $6bn every month in waging a predatory war for domination against the people of Iraq and killing on average 300 innocent Iraqi men, women and children every day.

Extreme parsimony in saving lives hand-in-hand with profligacy in waging predatory wars of domination that claim millions of lives and wreak untold destruction – this sums up the politics and economics of imperialism. Everything in this system is subordinated to the maximisation of the profits of monopolies. All the means and technology for saving life and enhancing human happiness are available in abundant supply, but are used merely to heap misery and inflict poverty and destitution, death and destruction on the vast masses of people.

Criminal failure to alert

The imperialist contempt for the lives of people in the vast oppressed and super-exploited regions of the world is further shown by the fact that while the governments of the countries hit by the tsunami had no effective warning, the US government was warned, but failed to pass on the information. Within literally minutes of the hugely powerful earthquake off the Indonesian coast, US scientists at NOAA realised that a deadly wave was travelling through the Indian Ocean at the speed of a jumbo jet, but did not call the officials in the countries soon to be hit by the tsunami. Instead, they confined themselves to sending an email to Indonesian officials. No one knows if the Indonesians read the email in time or what action, if any, they took following it.

By contrast, NOAA made sure to give an immediate warning to the US Naval Base at Diego Garcia. As a result, little damage was suffered by this naval station.

A short telephone call from the NOAA officials to the authorities in the region would have been enough to save tens of thousands of lives, for it would have enabled the governments in the area to alert their people, through radio and television announcements, as well as other means of communication, of the danger and to advise them to go uphill or inland before the waves hit the coastline.

Imperialist humanitarianism

After an initial stingy response following the tsunami disaster, the imperialist governments have been forced by the generosity of the public to enter into a kind of auction to flaunt their humanitarianism, with the result that $3bn worth of assistance has so far been pledged. Immediately after the tragedy, relations between the US and the UN, already damaged over the war in Iraq, deteriorated further when Jan Egeland, the UN humanitarian co-ordinator, accused the rich countries of being stingy. The Bush administration, which at the time had merely made a paltry offer of $15m ‘aid package’, was so irritated that it decided to sideline the UN by forming a four-nation ‘core group’ to organise aid to the tsunami victims.

However, international disapproval soon forced it to abandon its stance. As a result it suddenly brought the UN into the core group and subsequently decided on its dissolution as the UN took charge. Colin Powell, US Secretary of State, went on a charm offensive and toured the area in an effort to refurbish the battered image of US imperialism. While in Indonesia, he expressed the hope that muslim nations would see the best side of the US in its generous response to the victims of the disaster.

In addition to increasing its offer of assistance to $350m, US imperialism has entered the fray to display its ‘humanitarianism’ with 16,000 military personnel, 17 navy ships and 90 aircraft. The problem is that the US motives are suspect and not even the Indonesians are willing to trust the US armed forces in the matter of emergency aid delivery. As a result, a US plan to use navy landing craft for the deployment of 1,000 marines on the stricken west coast of the Indonesian province of Aceh was delayed because of Indonesian concerns about the country’s security. Quite rightly, the Indonesians teach at their military schools that “the way the US takes over countries is by moving in”. (Financial Times, 10 January 05)

While describing the US military, in view of its efforts to deliver aid, as a “force for good”, the FT is nevertheless obliged to state that “no one should be surprised that the Indonesian armed forces are balking at the idea of US … soldiers surveying their beaches and flying helicopters into … villages”.

A good day to bury bad news

In addition to providing an opportunity for the display of ‘humanitarianism’, the tsunami disaster has been a gift from heaven for Anglo-American imperialism, for it has enabled the latter to bury all the bad news from Iraq. The increasing intensity of the Iraqi resistance is inflicting daily defeats on the occupation forces and their Iraqi puppets, but there is very little mention of it in the imperialist media of these two countries. Since March 2003, Anglo-American imperialism has killed upwards of 100,000 Iraqis, yet this fact receives only a paltry mention in the very media which has been bursting its blood vessels in a fake attempt to show its concern for human life following the tsunami tragedy.

Imperialism – the real culprit

The imperialist media are quick to lay the blame for the scale of death and destruction on the allegedly corrupt and incompetent governments in the region. Far be it from us to deny the part played by these factors in the loss of life and property. There is no dearth of corruption and, at times, incompetence in the imperialist countries either. For all that, in these countries a natural disaster of the type just witnessed by the tsunami-afflicted Asian countries would not have resulted in loss of life and property on a similar scale.

Even the blind can see that the extreme poverty and lack of infrastructure that contribute to, and exacerbate, the scale and scope of disasters are a legacy of centuries of colonial exploitation and the direct result of the imperialist super-exploitation of these countries. Leaving aside the victims of war and natural disasters, the criminal imperialist system claims the lives of 13m children, who die each year before reaching the age of five through malnutrition and malnutrition-related diseases.

These children die in their mother’s arms in an annual holocaust, to which no one bothers to build a monument. Towards the end of this month (January), imperialist statesmen, journalists and ideologues will be vying with each other in marking the liberation of Auschwitz and condemning the crimes of the Nazis. But they will be maintaining a deafening silence about the two-and-a-half holocausts that imperialism continues to perpetrate each year on their hapless victims – the children of the so-called ‘third world’.

Equally, they will maintain an eerie silence about the fact that, while flaunting its ‘humanitarianism’ in the tsunami-struck region, imperialism – US imperialism in particular – is busy using the rope of starvation through blockades and trade embargoes to bring to heel countries, such as Cuba, North Korea and Zimbabwe, the governments of which it does not approve of, just as it killed 1.5m innocents through 12 years of criminal sanctions in the hope of deposing Saddam Hussein’s government in Iraq.


While expressing our sympathy with, and sending our condolences to, the victims of the tsunami disaster, we continue to be firmly of the view that the only way to avoid widespread death and destruction through natural disasters, as well as through wars and poverty, is to oppose and defeat imperialism.

Equally, we are firmly convinced of the inevitable victory of the people of the world against imperialism, notwithstanding the reverses that individual revolutionary struggles may suffer, for “humanity will not be broken by the imperialist butchery; on the contrary, it will get the upper hand”. (VI Lenin, ‘A letter to American workers’, 20 August 1918)

We are certain of the inevitable downfall of imperialism, that blood-thirsty beast, which has saturated the earth with blood and reduced humanity to misery, destitution and starvation, “no matter how monstrous and savage its frenzy in the face of death”. (Lenin, ‘Prophetic words’, 29 June 1918)