Tsunamis Natural, Forgetful and Political

Tsunamis Natural, Forgetful and Political

Tom Plate examines the politics behind the tidal waves

By Tom Plate
Pacific Perspectives Columnist

LOS ANGELES --- Nimmi Gowrinathan, ethnic Tamil, in her mid-twenties, is perhaps a model for the internationalist, other-directed sector of the next generation of influential Americans. Now in graduate school at UCLA, after a degree from Johns Hopkins University, this budding political scientist has spent many summers as a volunteer aid-worker in Sri Lanka, her parents’ birthplace.

It was no easy work, particularly emotionally, but she treasured almost every minute of it, especially while working with Sri Lanka’s orphan children. For life in their civil-war-torn society never gave them much chance, especially without living parents to support them – the latter casualties of the nearly two-decade civil war that has killed even more people in Sri Lanka than the horrible tsunami has, at least at last count. But Ms. Gowrinathan now knows that many of those orphans will never get that decent chance. They are dead.

After a night of endless tears, Ms. Gowrinathan pulled herself together and decamped at the Los Angeles headquarters of OPERATION USA, where she pitched in to help coordinate the relief effort. “I have not yet come to terms with the loss of life of this magnitude,” she said, “but the most I can do right now is to work to help.” That’s just about all that any of us can do, except, of course, to pray, as our religions would have us, for the many lost souls swept away by a very cruel Mother Nature.

But there is much more that America and the West, in an alliance for Asia, can do beyond the scope of what individuals can do. For not since the Asian financial crisis (1997-99) has this region been devastated by such a debilitating disaster.

Back then, the United States, alas, hung back, letting the semi-competent international financial agencies do their thing, which, as they very slowly did, time took its destructive course. In retrospect, most reasonable observers agree that the U.S. should have jumped in more quickly.

Let’s hope that the current U.S. government won’t make the Clinton administration error. In fact, the Bush administration now has an historic opportunity to make a luminous statement about what it stands for and what it really cares about. For many of the people in this afflicted region are Muslims, whose main image of America is that it supports Israel, which has many issues with the Muslim world, and that the we have been killing countless Muslims in Iraq.

That is not a fair description of the U.S. mission and intention in Iraq, but it is a fair representation of the widespread perception in the Islamic world. That destructively negative image could be repaired if America were seen to be taking a breathtakingly prominent and ambitious role in the reconstruction of this largely Muslim region.

Why not? President George W. Bush understandably described the tsunami disaster as “beyond comprehension,” but sometimes at least a moderate measure of comprehension can be attained by going to the trouble of taking a personal look at the apparently incomprehensible. Addressing a press conference while on vacation at the Crawford ranch in Texas, the president pledged – after three days of silence -- to rally an international coalition of aid.

The words sounded good enough, but this overtly religious man needs, in Asia’s urgent hour of need, to do more. At the very least, the president should have left Crawford and flown to some prominent capital in the impacted region, firmly planting the humanitarian flag of U.S. caring.

To be sure, America, whatever it does or doesn’t do, is not Asia’s worst enemy.  Right now, besides a mean Mother Nature, Asia’s worst enemy is often itself. Its militant (repeat: militant) Muslim leaders and groups ultimately must be kept in a box by the region’s moderate Muslim leaders; what’s more, the region itself must begin to bury its grudges and defenestrate its civil wars.

There is no better example of what Asia needs to do than Sri Lanka. Decades of self-inflicted civil war has arguably incapacitated the country every bit as much as Mother Nature has. The central government in Colombo refuses to work with the rebels to set up much-needed infrastructure in the country’s northeast, the region so hard hit by the tsunami. So will this voracious humanitarian disaster bring the Sri Lanka government and the rebels closer together? “I don’t think so,” sighs Gowrinathan, “I think Colombo may actually be happy the tsunami hit the northeast the hardest.”

That kind of evil spirit is as dangerous as any spell Mother Nature can conjure up. But if there is a silver lining in this tsunami cloud, it’s that Mother Nature may have intended to send us a wakeup call. But have we and our Asian friends heard it clearly enough? If Mother Nature cannot be tamed, can vicious human nature?

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

Tom Plate is a professor of Communication and policy Studies at UCLA. He is a regular columnist for the The Straits Times -- and is syndicated through UCLA's MEDIA CENTER to papers througout the world, including The Honolulu Advertiser, The Japan Times, The Seattle Times, the San Diego Business Journal, the Korea Times and the Orlando Sentinel. He has been a participant member of the World Economic Forum at Davos, and is a member of the Pacific Council on International policy. The author of five books, he has worked at TIME, the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Mail of London. He established the Asia Pacific Media Network in 1998 and was its director until 2003. He is now founder and director of UCLA's MEDIA CENTER.

For publication and reprint rights, contact the MEDIA INSTITUTE at platecolumn@hotmail.com -- or Tom Plate directly at tplate@ucla.edu.

The views expressed above are those of the author and are not necessarily those of AsiaMedia or the UCLA Asia Institute.

 A Chinese translation of this article is available as a PDF file.