Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
23 - 29 December 1999
Issue No. 461
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Front Page

A week in the world

Still the silent treatment

By Gamal Nkrumah

It's the world's worst kept secret, but catastrophic natural disasters invariably spare the rich and powerful. The poor are generally acknowledged to be disaster prone; death tolls are far higher in shantytowns. Nowhere is this more obvious than in South America. Central and South America have suffered some of the worst natural disasters of recent years. Last year, Hurricane Mitch ravaged much of Nicaragua and Honduras, leaving 10,000 people -- almost all desperately poor -- dead. Two months ago torrential downpours drenched Mexico; the subsequent landslides killed 400 people. This week, torrential rain left 20,000 dead and 200,000 people homeless in Venezuela in what is widely seen as South America's most catastrophic disaster.

There is a Kafkaesque quality to disaster preparedness and disaster relief; the relief workers do not quite know why or how they fail to make the grade, only that they fail. They fail to predict where the next disaster will strike; fail to rescue enough people from horrific ends; fail to tell governments what needs to be done to better prepare a nation for disasters, both natural and man-made. It is only when terrible disasters strike that slums where no doctor has ever set foot become a magnate for do-gooders.

It is a glaring insult to the intelligence and dignity of man that the combined income of the richest 250 Americans is equal to the collective income of the poorer half of the world's population -- three billion people. Such an outrage is untenable.

The fact of the matter is that the situation will not radically improve until the lot of the poor is bettered. The message must be drummed home at all international forums, à la Seattle, until the powers that be are forced to take action -- an all-out assault to eradicate poverty.

The poor live in shantytowns that are coming apart at the seams. Overpopulated, completely lacking in basic health and social services, the dwelling places of the poor are eyesores that are in themselves environmental disasters. Unplanned, poorly planned, haphazard and sub-standard buildings abound in the vast slums on the fringes of the rapidly growing cities in the Third World. Small wonder these ghettos are prone to the most horrific disasters.

The new scale of catastrophic disasters calls into question the wisdom of broad liberal reforms. There are growing signs that South America's poor are becoming increasingly disillusioned with market economics and their new democracies. Next year Venezuelan President Hugu Chavez could win a referendum approving his new constitution and he might well go on and get himself re-elected in a fresh presidential election -- the sixth national vote in 18 months. Election fatigue is a malaise that is spreading in both rich and poor nations and this suggests that policies propping up democratisation, sweeping privatisation and economic deregulation are still rather lacking in basic decency and humanity.

Mind you, so are terrorist attacks. Terrorist attacks are not arbitrary events, like natural disasters, which give us capricious insights into the fragility of humankind. Rather, killing innocent bystanders to score a publicity stunt for a political cause -- usually the championing of an independent homeland campaign -- has disturbingly become the norm. It is very difficult for many people, myself included, to understand the reasoning of suicide bombers. Does martyrdom grant terrorists a perverse sense of victory?

This week Sri Lanka was once again the scene of senseless carnage as suicide bombers of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam attempted to finish off the country's popularly-reelected president Chandrika Kumaratunga, who had just finished delivering an election-campaign speech to her supporters in the ruling People's Alliance Party. Twin explosions rocked the Sri-Lankan capital of Colombo during the rally, killing 33 people and injuring 150 others. Kumaratunga suffered injuries to her face -- one eye had to be immediately operated upon -- and was also treated for shrapnel wounds. Observers contend that the attack created a sympathy vote and helped Kumaratunga in Monday's reelection.

Kumaratunga's predecessors imposed discriminatory laws that compromised the predominantly-Hindu Tamil people's legitimate rights for cultural expression. They proclaimed Sinhalese as the official language of the island nation and suppressed Tamil culture in schools and in society at large.

Terrorist attacks harden attitudes, and don't score political points. Why do terrorists persist? It's impossible to answer that one and one doesn't even try. Suffice it to say that the Liberation Tigers do not see themselves as terrorists, but as freedom fighters struggling to free their third of the Indian Ocean island and create an independent Tamil nation -- by any means necessary.

The residents of Colombo, a city of 1.2 million, have long become accustomed to suicide bombers and their madness. In fact, a complacent fatalism seems to be the order of the day. In 1995, the late Sri-Lankan president Ranasinghe Premadasa was killed in a similar explosion. In July of this year, a suspected Tamil suicide bomber killed a moderate Tamil parliamentarian who was in favour of a negotiated settlement with the Sri-Lankan authorities. In April, a bus bomb at a busy Colombo intersection killed 43 people. In March, a bomber failed to kill a police officer, killing three innocent bystanders in the attempt. In February, a suicide bomber strapped with explosives hurled herself at the gates of Sri Lanka's air force headquarters in downtown Colombo instantly killing eight people.

Kumaratunga corrected the most blatant offences, repealing the one-language law and reinstating Tamil in schools, but she did not tamper with the discriminatory laws regarding security. Ethnic Tamils are required to register themselves with the police so that they could be easily identified by security personnel. The majority Buddhist Sinhalese are not required to register with police nor are the country's other ethnic groups such as the Muslim and Christian minorities.

The ethnic clashes between the Tamil fighters and the majority Sinhalese are largely restricted to the northern part of the island, but Tamil militants often launch terrorist attacks in the capital to highlight their struggle for national self-determination. The Tamil, who constitute 20 per cent of the population, are geographically concentrated in the northern and eastern part of the island. There are widespread fears that the Tamil-Sinhalese conflict that erupted 17 years ago will envelop the country once again. From her hospital bed, Kumaratunga cautioned against reprisals and urged her people to remain calm.

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