The tsunami and lost opportunities

Of all the lost opportunities in our nation’s post independence history, the tsunami would undoubtedly rank somewhere at the very top. The tragedy which took over 40,000 lives and devastated the coastal region of the country, also granted a golden opportunity for Sri Lanka to make a quantum leap forward in many spheres.

The massive financial aid that flooded into the country, from ordinary citizens, to affluent governments from all corners of the world, could have been the foundation for a brighter and better future for millions of Sri Lankans, if utilised in a more efficient and honest manner.

Immediately after the tragedy, the people of this land witnessed a rare glimpse of unity in the political spectrum, if harnessed intelligently, could have ushered in a new political culture. Even the ethnic divide, that had been elusively impossible to bridge, seemed to have narrowed in the face of the shared misery of all communities. Yet, even before the memory of that natural disaster, which did not discriminate between ethnicities had faded, the country was witnessing another bout of violence, more brutal than any before.

Most other countries that suffered the same fate as Sri Lanka on December 26, 2004, have since resurrected themselves and moved forward. Thailand has regained its status as the Mecca of tourism in the region, while the Ache rebels and the Indonesian government have since made peace and are now utilising the billions of dollars in aid granted by the international community, for the reconstruction of the war devastated province, hardest hit by the tsunami. These achievements by other tsunami affected countries make our situation even more tragic.

Even though nearly three years have lapsed, Sri Lanka has been unable to provide permanent housing for all those who needed shelter. According to the latest reports 22,000 houses remain to be built even though several billion rupees have been allegedly spent for the cause. A damning report by the Auditor General in 2005 stated that over Rs. 11 billion was collected as emergency tsunami relief.

The question begging an answer is what happened to all these monies? Have the victims of the tragedy truly benefited from the unprecedented worldwide outpouring of sympathy which translated to billions of rupees. The international donor community pledged over US $ 3.6 billion in Kandy in order to assist the tsunami reconstruction. There is little tangible to show, if at all any, that the money was used in anything productive.

Even the Post Tsunami Operational Management Structure, the much hyped PTOMS, which was seen as a stepping stone to a more permanent peace between the LTTE and the government was thrown to the dustbin of history, while the country was plunged back again into its usual vicious cycle of violence.

The tsunami was arguably Mahinda Rajapaksa’s finest hour. While his President, Chandrika Kumaratunga was as usual out of the country during a time of national crisis, just as she was when the Sri Lanka Army faced its worst defeat at Elephant Pass, she also took quite a number of days to get back from her vacation. It was thus left for her Prime Minister Rajapaksa, to lead the government’s relief efforts, or at least be the face of that process. Such a show of leadership from the man has not been seen before or since. Just like the 9/11 attacks were the defining moment in the Bush Presidency, it was the tsunami which transformed the man from Hambantota into the national figure he desperately needed to be, in order to launch his campaign to become the Executive President of Sri Lanka. Yet since becoming President, he and his administration have failed to deliver on the promise that many Sri Lankans hoped for—a better future after the tsunami.

This failure stands as a testament to the greater tragedy that has befallen our land. The tsunami exposed the absolute bankruptcy of national leadership in all tiers, and especially at the very top. Expecting extraordinary feats from ordinary men can be considered unwise; yet expecting those who claim to represent us, to care an iota for the victims of the tsunami, who are still suffering three years since the tragedy, is not asking for too much- even from Sri Lankan leaders.