All the photographies were taken during the months of June and July 2005, six months after the catastrophe, by the NGO Farmamundi.


The tsunami which swept across the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004 prompted a humanitarian response of unparalleled scale. Although the final death toll, estimated to be over 300,000, is of staggering proportions, it is, however, a fraction of the numbers who in recent years have died in Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo or Sudan. The tsunami captured the world’s attention and generated an unprecedented outpouring of compassion and global solidarity while the needs of less visible displaced people, many in even greater need, remain unaddressed.
The sheer scale of the relief operation, the fact that the tsunami primarily ravaged countries already coping with conflict-induced displacement and the sad reality that thehumanitarian community often leaps into action without heeding lessons from the past motivated our decision to publish an additional issue of Forced Migration Review. We are pleased to have gathered a unique collection of articles, bringing together the views of local NGOs in tsunami-affected states and the reflections of some of the key leaders in post-tsunami relief and recovery operations.

The politics of the tsunami response
by Eva-Lotta Hedman
The Asian tsunami of 26 December 2004 destroyed lives and entire Indian Ocean coastal communities. Within minutes of an earthquake measuring 9.0 on the Richter scale striking the west coast of northern Sumatra in Indonesia, the first large tsunami hit these shores to devastating effect, especially between Banda Aceh and Meulaboh in Aceh. A massive upward shift in the seabed also caused tsunamis to hit coastal communities in parts of western Thailand, Burma, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, eastern India and the Maldives before reaching the coast of Africa, with terrible damage to life and property. In the aftermath of this massive natural disaster, some 290,000 people were dead or missing, and more than one million displaced, across 12 affected countries. As news of this natural disaster broke, it sparked an extraordinary mobilisation of resources for humanitarian relief and assistance by private citizens and corporations, NGOs and governments in the affected countries and beyond. An elaborate international machinery of expertise in the coordination and delivery of relief and assistance in complex humanitarian emergencies was revved up and deployed in affected areas. In places, the sheer scale of the destruction posed formidable logistical difficulties for the delivery of basic humanitarian relief to affected populations and in many cases national and/or foreign military forces were needed to enable access to affected populations. Another major challenge in the emergency relief phase stemmed from the fluidity of displaced populations. This was especially the case in Aceh, as survivors from affected areas sometimes moved between public or community spaces, host families, tent camps and other temporary shelters.
Mapping the situation and location of survivors was not easy. National governments, international donors and humanitarian organisations put much energy into establishing the nature and extent of the impact of the tsunamis – the destruction of homes, livestock and livelihoods; loss of property, land titles and other important documents; and damage to public infrastructure. A proliferation of damage assessments, surveys and maps, drawing on an array of expert knowledge, provided guidelines to shape donor and national government’s rehabilitation and reconstruction plans. Beyond issues of coordination and expertise in complex humanitarian emergencies, it is important to refocus attention on the nature, direction and pace of relief and reconstruction efforts which remain embedded within complex relations of power shaped by national and local politics in the affected areas. The diverging responses to the unprecedented direct impact of this massive single disaster on 12 different countries, with their own distinctive political, economic and social dynamics, underscores the powerful effects of everyday politics upon humanitarian efforts, whether amateur or professional, local or international. To date, however, little systematic effort has been made to examine the role or significance of political dynamics and patterns affecting humanitarian relief and reconstruction across tsunami-affected areas.
Betwixt and between the natural disaster and pre-existing complex humanitarian emergencies, many tsunami survivors have had to negotiate a range of constraints. In the case of Aceh, where conflict, violence and a massive counter-insurgency campaign against separatists has displaced over 300,000 people since 1999, the IDP ‘identity’ of tsunami survivors has become politically sensitive and contested. By definition the term ‘IDP’ includes those forced by natural disasters to leave their homes, yet Indonesian government officials and international humanitarian organisations have at times referred to them as ‘homeless’. Such distinctions have critical implications for identifying the rights and guarantees to protection and assistance of affected populations, as well as the role and obligations of local and national government set out in the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.
In Thailand, with its punitive approach to containing a large refugee and migrant worker population from neighbouring Burma, there is evidence of de facto discrimination by local government authorities and Thai citizens against Burmese tsunami survivors in the affected southern provinces. As the Thai government declared a position of self-reliance in the coordination and delivery of post-tsunami emergency relief, thus affording an unrivalled opportunity for Premier Thaksin Shinawatra, and his Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai) political party to campaign for the 6 February 2005 elections, Burmese migrant workers were also comparatively isolated from alternative sources of assistance and support, including from their own military-led government. Burmese migrant workers have been excluded in the distribution of emergency relief and the implementation of Thai government aid programmes by local officials, as well as targeted for arrests by local police in post-tsunami crackdowns on ‘illegal migrants’, leading, in many cases, to eventual deportation back to Burma.
In the case of India, where the government also declined offers of a coordinated international humanitarian emergency response, there is evidence of discriminatory practices by local officials and populations alike against dalits (still commonly referred to as ‘untouchables’) in tsunami-affected areas. Trapped within a social structure of castebased hierarchy and domination, dalit survivors were reportedly only reluctantly received in many temporary shelters and camps housing (higher caste) IDPs from coastal fishing communities; some dalits were driven away. There is also evidence of other IDPs preventing government officials, NGO staff and other civil society groups from distributing emergency relief to dalits.
Another crucial dimension of the tsunami emergency response stems from the primacy of military-strategic considerations in some of the worst affected areas, most notably Aceh, the Northern and Eastern provinces of Sri Lanka and arguably, the Nicobar Islands of India. Aceh has been massively militarised by the presence of 40,000 soldiers since a state of emergency was declared in May 2003. With forcible relocation into camps an integral part of recent counter-insurgency campaigns, the role of the Indonesian military in the post-tsunami distribution of emergency relief, as well as in the coordination of IDP relocation into controversial ‘barracks,’ has seriously compromised the principles of humanitarian assistance in many cases. In the case of Sri Lanka, moreover, the coincidence of the tsunami’s path of destruction with the so-called ‘uncleared areas’ along the coastal belt of zones controlled by the Liberation Tiger of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) has made for a sluggish relief operation as the government in Colombo has firmly opposed any mechanisms to bypass its central authority. The absence of a central government response is further highlighted by the Somalian case. Finally, in the Nicobar Islands, home to Indian strategic naval bases, there is evidence to suggest that tsunami relief and rehabilitation efforts were military-led and that they bypassed affected indigenous communities and local civilian administration.
As many humanitarian actors involved in the tsunami relief and reconstruction begin to evaluate their responses it is to be hoped that assessments will offer critical comparative perspectives on the varying responses undertaken by those agencies which operated in two or more affected areas, thus facing distinct and distinctly political challenges. The long-standing presence of UNHCR and other UN bodies in Sri Lanka prior to the tsunami suggests an illuminating contrast with Aceh, for example, with far-reaching implications on the relief efforts that ensued.
Concerns about shortcomings in meeting the rights of disaster-induced IDPs to protection have drawn attention to relations of power and politics within which IDPs remain embedded. Authors in this special issue of FMR highlight a range of protection concerns in the aftermath of the tsunami, including access to assistance, enforced relocation, sexual and gender-based violence, safe and voluntary return, loss of documentation and restitution of property. Such concerns must be tackled at an early stage as the protection of economic, social and cultural rights tends to deteriorate over time. As the media focuses on other news, large tsunami-affected populations remain in areas of enduring conflict. It is high time to focus more systematic and comparative analysis on discourses and dynamics of state security and everyday politics, how they have influenced this complex humanitarian emergency and their implications for IDP protection and assistance.
Eva-Lotta Hedman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford, specialising in the dynamics of conflict, violence and internal displacement in Southeast Asia. Email:

The great land theft
by Scott Leckie
The tsunami has reminded us of the need for a rights-based approach to post-disaster reconstruction. If housing, land and property rights are put at the heart of a postdisaster plan – rather than cast aside as too complicated or expensive – the chances are that it will succeed. If these rights are ignored or, more ominously, systematically violated, not only will rights be abused but also reconstruction will fail. Once again as post-tsunami aid poured in we heard the old refrain: “This time it’s going to be different, this time we will not fail the victims”. Six months on, it is time to ask just how different from other disasters has the massive recovery and reconstruction process really been. Has the post-disaster rebuilding effort achieved what was needed? Are the homeless already housed and able to move on with their lives? Have survivors been treated in accordance with their rights? Are the survivors in Aceh, the Maldives, Sri Lanka and India better off than those who survived earthquakes in Bam, Gujarat or Kobe or hurricanes in Central America or the Caribbean? Or have they become victims and their human rights side-lined as political actors used the pretext of disaster to achieve otherwise unachievable objectives?
Land lost and gained
In every disaster, lives and livelihoods are destroyed, economic hardship is ubiquitous and severe disruption of ordinary life is assured. But there is a common thread running through all disasters and one that holds the key to successful reconstruction, rebuilding and regeneration: land, housing and property (HLP) rights.
Beyond the human toll, the tsunami provided a pretext for evictions, land grabs, unjustifiable land-acquisition plans and other measures designed to prevent homeless residents from returning to their original homes and lands. Thailand, India and other affected countries have restricted the right to return but Sri Lanka stands out as the tsunami-affected country which has sought most dramatically to re-shape its residential landscape through the reconstruction process.
Government policies now prohibit new construction within 100 metres of the mean sea level (in some areas 200 metres). The overwhelming majority of the more than 500,000 people displaced lived within 100 metres of the coast when the tsunami struck. The government has promised to rehouse those affected by the construction regulations and has undertaken to build a house for every affected house owner. While privately owned land within the 100-metre zone will remain the property of the original owners – and the government states that it will not claim ownership to such property – the 100-metre rule will permanently prevent hundreds of thousands of people in fishing communities and others who lived and worked on or near the shore from returning to their former lands. Understandably, those affected are not happy.
This desire to protect the coastline and former residents from any future tsunami may appear entirely reasonable and consistent with human rights standards. However, these manoeuvres to change the demographics of the Sri Lankan coastline can be criticised on several fronts. First, the people themselves do not want to move and generally long to return to their former lands. Second, there has effectively been no consultation on the 100-metre rule in Sri Lanka. And third, the exceptions to the 100-metre rule now being allowed – for hotels, wealthy property developers and other privileged groups – raise serious concerns of favouritism.
Housing uncertainty
While the authorities in Aceh have significantly changed their policies on voluntary return to allow people to go home rather than face permanent relocation, new problems are facing Acehnese survivors. The re-building process has been painfully slow with almost no new homes yet constructed in the most severely affected areas. An important process of community mapping has taken place in Aceh, led by NGOs, but the local authorities are reluctant to accept such bottom-up initiatives. This is perhaps influenced by the World Bank-supported ‘rapid title registration programme’ in Aceh which, though financially well-endowed, is far too slow and prone to possible conflicts to assist in expediting the broader reconstruction process.
In Sri Lanka, hundreds of thousands of tsunami survivors continue to live in temporary shelters or tents some six months after the disaster. Reports indicate that the government has plans to build new housing four or five – in some cases even 14 – kilometres from traditional coastal villages. This will have a serious impact on peoples’ livelihoods, especially fishing families dependent on the sea and immediate access to it. When one visits temporary resettlement sites in Sri Lanka, it is not difficult to get the feeling that tsunami survivors are going to be waiting for many years before all of the housing that is needed is actually in place.
Failure to actively involve these communities in the re-building effort is causing additional frustration. Throughout the tsunami-affected countries, reconstruction efforts have generally been top-down initiatives, excluding many affected communities from decision making. Given the still huge housing backlog throughout the affected region, governments, communities and NGOs will have to make a special effort to work together to find housing solutions that are quick to achieve and acceptable to all affected individuals, families and communities. Governments and foreign agencies might consider the example of the government of Gujarat which, in the aftermath of the 2001 earthquake, allowed local communities and local NGOs to lead the reconstruction process; survivors there achieved a return to housing normalcy far more quickly than would have been the case had the state or private sectors led the re-housing effort.
Rights-based reconstruction
The human tragedy inherent in this natural disaster must not be exacerbated by violations of the human rights of survivors as they seek to reestablish their homes, livelihoods and communities. HLP rights are key elements of any post-disaster setting and need to be an integral part of any future recovery efforts. An HLP rights framework in relief and reconstruction efforts would go some way – in future disasters – to avoid some of the more callous policies pursued in response to the tsunami. A rights-based approach should focus on seven key areas:
1. The right to voluntary return: All survivors of disasters should be assured of the right to voluntarily return, without discrimination, to the land on which they originally lived. If homes are still intact or capable of repair, their rights to recover, repossess and re-inhabit these homes should be respected. Any unjustifiable restriction on return amounts to forced eviction, which is illegal under international law.
2. The right to adequate housing and secure tenure: Following all disasters, all affected families and individuals should be provided with access to adequate and affordable housing, in accordance with international human rights, in as expeditious a manner possible. Upon return or resettlement, security of tenure should be granted to affected individuals and communities, and this should be properly registered within official housing and land registries. Nobody should become homeless as a result of the reconstruction process.
3. The right to participation, consultation and non-discrimination: Special efforts should be made to ensure the full participation of disaster-affected persons in the planning and management of their return, re-housing or resettlement. All affected communities should be consulted on any housing plans and encouraged to form community-based organisations to represent their own interests. Fully participatory, transparent and accountable systems must be developed to ensure that only former residents – and poorer residents in particular – benefit from the rebuilding of homes and related infrastructure. All reconstruction and rehabilitation efforts should take account of the needs of especially vulnerable or marginalised groups.
4. The right to protection in temporary housing arrangements: The setting up and running of temporary housing settlements following disasters should be in full conformity with international human rights standards. In addition to fulfilling camp residents’ minimum rights to shelter, water, food, medical care and education, the camps should be managed in full consultation and cooperation with the displaced themselves. The provision or withholding of emergency assistance should not be used as a means of control or oppression. Within all temporary camps, physical and psychological security and mental health – particularly of women and children – should be maintained and protected.
5. Rights to livelihoods, social security, water, health and education: Post-disaster aid efforts should not be disproportionately directed towards providing emergency assistance and establishing temporary camps. A significant amount of the resources available for reconstruction and rehabilitation should be devoted to building appropriate housing and to restoring lost livelihoods, assets for social security and health, education and community facilities.
6. Equal rights to inheritance: All inheritance and property-ownership laws or practices, whether formal or informal, that are discriminatory and may thus prevent the equitable transfer of property to survivors (particularly women and children) should be scrapped. Widows should be given legal title to land and housing in their own names, and married women should be recognised on the title deed along with their husband and children, if any.
7. Women’s rights: Women have traditionally been at the forefront in ensuring the survival and welfare of their communities. Therefore, in addition to safeguarding the women’s rights emphasised above, it is particularly important to support women in the relief, reconstruction and rehabilitation effort and to respect their rights to participation. The Indian Ocean tsunami provides many lessons to policy makers entrusted with responding to the next massive natural or manmade disaster. It is to be hoped that the manipulation of the recovery process by governments in the region which we have witnessed will not repeated when the next disaster strikes. Scott Leckie, Executive Director of the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions
(COHRE, worked on housing, land and property rights issues in Sri Lanka and the Maldives in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. Email: COHRE recently established an office in Colombo (contact to monitor human rights abuses in reconstruction programmes in all tsunami-affected countries.

IDPs confined to barracks in Aceh
by Lukman Age
The opening up of Aceh to the international community in the aftermath of the tsunami offered a glimmer of hope to the Acehnese. However, as rehabilitation and reconstruction plans start to be implemented, hopes for peace and development are being dashed by government insensitivity to local needs. Before the disaster, many Acehnese had been living in difficult conditions due to the counter-insurgency campaign waged by the Indonesian military against the separatist Free Aceh Movement (GAM). Hopes for a return to normality and a chance to build sustainable livelihoods have been dashed by the government’s relokasi pengungsi (refugee relocation) programme. This top-down scheme is moving IDPs out of emergency camps to temporary barracks rather than focusing on rehabilitation and construction of permanent housing as requested by those displaced by the tsunami. Supposedly built to conform to international standards, the 30-metre long wooden barracks are equipped with electricity and water supplies. Each barrack contains a dozen family rooms of 10m2 in addition to a communal kitchen, two bathrooms and a hall for assembly, study and worship. The government plans to transfer 140,000 IDPs from emergency camps and to provide each IDP with a monthly grant of 90,000 rupiah ($9). People living in the barracks are likely to be totally dependent on government handouts with no means of making a living and no work other than possible participation in food-for-work schemes Many IDPs are forced to accept relocation as they lack resources to rent or rebuild on their own. They have not been helped by the fact that international humanitarian organisations have appeared to lend support to relokasi pengungsi. The Indonesian government, the UN and a number of NGOs joined forces in a rapid assessment of such relocation sites and the government’s National Coordinating Agency for Natural Disaster and Refugees Relief (Bakornas) and the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) have jointly coordinated the Joint Relocation Centre Liaison Unit.1 Critics argue that the Aceh relocation shows many of the same elements as the transmigration programmes of the 1980s and the forcible relocation of villagers following declaration of martial law in Aceh in May 2003. Human Rights Watch has drawn attention to the Indonesian military’s record of housing Acehnese displaced by the conflict in camps where at times their freedom of movement has been restricted and where serious human rights violations have taken place.2 The Minister of Social Welfare has acknowledged that barracks sites have been selected after receiving military approval. It is not known how much freedom of movement will be permitted in and out of the barracks. Though they will not be surrounded by barbed wire, there will be security patrols to prevent contact with GAM.
Uncertain futures for barracks residents No proper attempt has been made to assess the psychological impact of forcing people to live in barracks for possibly as long as two years. Living together in big groups is uncommon in Aceh. People prefer to live in smaller groups clustered around a meunasah (small mosque) at the center of a community. In rural areas the meunasah provides a key marker of belonging and community, a focal point for prayers, meetings or simply hanging out with friends. Many villages in Aceh indicate the importance of the meunasah in their name: Meunasah Jiem, Meunasah Tuha, Meunasah Blang. Membership of a particular meunasah entails a responsibility to care for one another and guard against external threats. Living in barracks with strangers will present a major challenge to many rural Acehnese. Barracks do not offer privacy and are likely to result in stress, arguments and increased risk of sexual harassment. Tsunami survivors worry that relocation away from their villages may lead to them losing their land. Many have lost legal certificates and boundaries demarcating fields have in many cases been washed away by the tsunami. Villagers fear that others will occupy and seize their land unless they are able to make frequent visits.
Corruption is deeply embedded in Indonesia. IDPs worry that promises to provide food and other material assistance will not be honoured in the long term. There are reports that, instead of receiving the promised RP 150,000 per month, IDPs are being forced to accept goods, supposedly of equal value. Barracks contractors have not been selected by an open tendering process and it is reported that some have fraudulently received funds for non-existent barracks. The anti-corruption NGO, Peace for Aceh Without Corruption (Aceh Damai Tanpa Korupsi - ADTK), has demonstrated that several completed barracks are smaller than planned and that they fail to meet minimum Sphere standards. Relocation into barracks will delay the process of social recovery if IDP communities come to expect continuous assistance in their capacity as victims, rather than survivors, of the tsunami. This is unfortunate as it runs contrary to the wishes of many Acehnese to be involved directly and actively in redeveloping Aceh after the disaster.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) has worked with USAID on a major survey to assess attitudes to the relief and reconstruction process.3 Its main finding is that the priorities of almost all those affected by the tsunami are to return home, resume their jobs and reestablish their communities. Displaying an acute awareness of the potential for land tenure/property disputes, IDPs said they would agree to permanent relocation if they were assured of legal ownership of the occupied land and house. The majority of the IDPs have indicated a strong preference to be relocated, either temporarily or permanently, to areas close to their home villages. They expressed a strong desire not to live in barracks. Acehnese are renowned for their self-reliance and a significant proportion of respondents said they wanted to receive construction materials such as wood and cement. They overwhelmingly asked for livelihoods support and only 4% of those interviewed said that they had received any assistance to help them re-start earning a living.
Families who have traditionally depended on fishing are bitterly opposed to the relocation plans and have refused to leave their villages. At public meetings fishermen’s representatives have been joined by others in declaring their refusal to leave their land under any circumstances. Their defiance is unprecedented in a society which has hitherto meekly accepted official instructions. However, it will not be easy to continue resistance given the strength of the military and the government’s determination to provide no assistance to those who refuse to evacuate their villages. Government policy is top down and target-driven and allows no space for participation. Those in charge of the relocation programme must:
> locate barracks as close as possible to villages of origin and within range of likely employment opportunities
> introduce greater transparency into the process of barracks construction and management
> accept that the desire of IDPs to return to villages of origin as soon as possible is legitimate
> recognise that under the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement displaced persons can only be relocated with their full and informed consent
> do more to ensure the cohesiveness of established social units
> publicise and adhere to a schedule to restore basic services and infrastructure and to facilitate return
> support comprehensive livelihood assistance activities which take into account changes in family structure caused by the tsunami
> provide public information and education which address people’s concerns about a future natural disaster: resettled communities should be involved in developing locally-specific contingency plans for disaster preparedness and management.
Lukman Age coordinates the Aceh Programme at the Research and Education for Peace Unit of Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang ( and is also a researcher at the Aceh Institute, Banda Aceh: Email:
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Ethnic conflict, the Sri Lankan state and the tsunami
by Jayadeva Uyangoda
Post-tsunami developments in Sri Lanka have intensified the country’s political crisis as thegovernment and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) struggle to find a framework of cooperation to obtain and utilise international assistance. In a country with a de facto dual state structure, is it possible to build a conflict- and peace-sensitive recovery
framework? Since a cease-fire agreement in February 2002 the LTTE’s prolonged struggle to establish a Tamil ethnic state in Sri Lanka’s Northern and Eastern provinces has given way to an uneasy peace. The sheer magnitude of the tsunami’s destructive impact may have averted the risk that front-line tensions between government soldiers and LTTE cadres could spark a return to war. In the space of twenty minutes the number of fatalities – around 35,000 – almost equalled the death toll from twenty years of civil war. The tsunami wiped out cities, villages and communities and made nearly a million people, most of them poor, homeless.
While the government views itself as the undisputed representative of the nation-state and the primary driver of post-tsunami recovery the LTTE claims to be the ‘sole representative’ of the Tamil nation. The fact that people living in the coastal areas under LTTE control have suffered almost equally as in the areas under government control has added to the LTTE’s claim that it should be treated as an equal partner in the reconstruction process. The Norwegian government, facilitators of the cease-fire agreement and peace talks, has been working with the government and the LTTE to try to reach agreement on the nature, powers and functions of a proposed joint mechanism to oversee reconstruction. No compromise has yet been reached.
Against this backdrop, the massive international assistance pledged immediately after the tsunami has been slow to arrive. President Chandrika Kumaratunga claimed in late March that not even ‘five cents’ of promised official money had reached the Treasury. Sri Lanka’s
Foreign and Finance Ministry officials have appealed to the international community to turn
their pledges into cheques and cash. However, for many donors, disbursement appears to be contingent on the government and the LTTE working to establish the joint institutional mechanism. The international community views Sri Lanka’s post-tsunami recovery process
as integrally linked to the resumption of negotiations and re-launch of the peace process.
The largest share of destruction occurred in the Northern and Eastern provinces where the
civil war had been concentrated for two decades and large numbers of IDPs were living in
camps awaiting resettlement or relocation. The Eastern province is distinctive in that there
are almost equal numbers of Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Despite its mixed ethnic composition, the LTTE claims the province as the ‘traditional Tamil homeland’. The tsunami
caused severe destruction in the coastal belt of LTTE-held zones, the so-called ‘uncleared areas’ to which the Sri Lankan state had no access.
Prior to the tsunami, efforts were being made through an uneasy framework of cooperation between the Sri Lankan government, the LTTE and the international community to re-build these war-torn provinces. Due to the inability of the government and the LTTE to evolve an institutional framework, these efforts had met with little success. The LTTE proposed a mechanism for receiving international aid directly from foreign governments and international donors – a move the government viewed, however, as an attempt to bypass the authority of central government and institutionalise separatism by subterfuge.
In the weeks after the tsunami there was much speculation – fed by rumours of the reported death of the LTTE’s supreme leader, Vellupillai Prabhakaran, and severe damage to the LTTE’s Sea Tiger naval wing – that the disaster had altered the existing strategic equilibrium in favour of the state. Such speculation helped shape the framework for government-LTTE cooperation. The impetus for cooperation gained strength with reports that Sri Lankan soldiers and LTTE cadres had spontaneously joined forces on a voluntary basis to assist each other in rescue and relief work in the Northern and Eastern provinces. The challenge for the two sides was to transform this ground-level collaboration into a formal framework of cooperation.
By creating a centralised structure to manage the post-tsunami process, the government has disregarded the institutions of local government. The tsunami has underlined the essentially centralising impulses of the country’s political-bureaucratic elites and highlighted the incapacity of the centralised structure to provide immediate assistance to the affected communities. The bureaucracy in Colombo has seen devolution of power to provincial councils as resulting in the erosion of their power and authority and has successfully resisted strengthening of provincial councils.
A further policy failure has led to Muslim resentment. The Muslim communities in the Eastern Province suffered massive losses but state assistance has been minimal. This is due both to the inefficiency of state machinery and the weakness of the deeply divided Muslim political leadership. Muslims have begun to interpret state inaction as deliberate discrimination against the Muslim community. The fact that state agencies have provided assistance to Sinhalese communities and the LTTE’s relief agencies have been working primarily with affected Tamil communities, together with the failure to include Muslim political leaders in negotiations for a government-LTEE joint mechanism, have exacerbated
Muslim feelings of exclusion.
Both the government and the LTTE are wedded to centralised decision making and humanitarian intervention from above. This state-centric approach views the affected people
as passive recipients of humanitarian assistance. This became evident when the government
as well as the LTTE decided, without consulting the affected communities, to ban rebuilding
houses within a coastal buffer zone. While the government declared this buffer zone to be 100 metres, the LTTE went several steps ahead with a 300-metre prohibition zone. Though
well-intentioned, the buffer zone policy created panic and fear among people who had already lost their means of livelihoods. It was clear that neither the Sri Lankan government
nor the emerging regional political entity of the Tamil community possessed a concept, mechanism or structure for popular consultation in policy making.
Civil society response shows up state incapacity The LTTE responded to the emergency with military precision, mobilising cadres to support its humanitarian wing the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation (TRO), but the response of the government was inefficient and delayed. While the government’s administrative machinery remained almost dysfunctional, individual citizens, citizen groups and NGOs set to work within hours of the catastrophe, providing survivors with food, clothes and shelter, organising rescue operations, clearing debris, searching for survivors and the dead and even initiating international private philanthropic support. In the Western and Southern provinces, where the state should have responded directly and immediately to the needs of the affected people, the state machinery took in most instances five to seven days to reach stricken communities. Local officials, when interviewed, revealed that they were extremely reluctant to take any initiative on their own, because of fear of making mistakes that would bring rebuke from central government.
Civil society decision making had a strong element of flexibility that the state sector lacked. NGOs could deploy staff and volunteers within a few hours without being constrained by the bureaucratic rules of the state sector. They could also easily tap individual voluntarism and private philanthropy. However, this flexibility left NGOs open to criticism from the government and those in the media who argued that individual and NGO action led to corruption and to uncoordinated and unplanned interventions. They alleged that civil society programmes endangered national security because of the suspicion that the LTTE could have transported military and war-related equipment in the guise of relief goods. The responses to the tsunami disaster and the advancement of the stalled peace process are closely interwoven. Effective and sustainable responses to the tsunami disaster require consensus building across political and ethnic divides as well as reforms to make a reality of federalism and decentralisation.
Without reforms to ensure popular participation in the reconstruction process, there will be widespread resistance to ‘reconstruction from above’. Affected communities have already begun to protest against official and bureaucratic ineffectiveness in the provision of relief. Post-tsunami reconstruction is not just about constructing buildings, roads and economic infrastructure. It involves rebuilding communities, community lives and the livelihoods of nearly a million people who suddenly found themselves destitute. Unless the affected communities are active participants, the rebuilding process will be thoroughly undemocratic. To unblock the impasse between the government and the LTTE, civil society groups have proposed a framework for cooperation between the government and the LTTE guided by the notion of ‘conflict and peace sensitivity’. They have highlighted the need to combine ‘postconflict’ reconstruction and rebuilding with ‘post-tsunami’ recovery and rebuilding. This requires a formal framework negotiated between the two parties, because the cease-fire agreement – the only formal agreement defining the military relations between them – has been shown to be inadequate to govern the nature and trajectories of this cooperation. Civil society groups argue that reconstruction and post-conflict reconciliation must be based on the following set of principles:
> The tsunami should not be viewed as a mere natural disaster: relief and reconstruction responses must consider the ethnic conflict and the peace process.
> All communities – Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim – should be treated equally and their participation encouraged.
> In view of the extent of damage and loss of life, the Northern and Eastern provinces should receive priority assistance.
> The government and the international community should not ignore the role of LTTE in the post-tsunami process but establish a partnership.
The government and the LTTE should use the post-tsunami space to begin a new process of
political engagement. Reaching formal agreement on humanitarian engagement, parallel to
the cease-fire agreement, is vital.
Jayadeva Uyangoda is the head of the Department of Political Science and Public Policy at
Colombo University, editor of Polity and chair of the Sri Lankan Social Scientists’ Association. Email:

Livelihoods in post-tsunami Sri Lanka
by Simon Harris
Livelihoods in Sri Lanka have not only been affected by the initial devastation of the tsunami but also by the policies and practices of the government and the humanitarian aid community’s post-disaster response.
The following stories offer a composite presentation of experiences related to the author by displaced people and aid workers some five months after the tsunami. They convey some of the key livelihood issues in post-tsunami Sri Lanka, in particular the impact of competitive multiple-agency humanitarian interventions, the reconstruction industry, the coastal no-build zone and delays in receiving state compensation.
The fisherman
You’re a fisherman whose boat was damaged in the tsunami. It was a small catamaran that helped yield a modest catch: not enough to make you rich but, nevertheless, a decent living. The government has offered to replace your boat but you have been waiting for months and nothing has materialised. However, after the tsunami the international humanitarian aid agencies came. Some offered community consultation and participation and wanted to know how your needs could be best met, whilst other just seemed to want to disperse their funds as quickly as possible. They wanted to offer you a loan, a grant or perhaps a share in a cooperative. One NGO was willing to provide you with a replacement catamaran. Another was giving larger single-keel boats, whilst yet another was offering outboard motors. And that’s just the choice for fishing. You could retrain as a carpenter or a mason, learn to use a computer or start another local NGO to compete with the hundreds that have proliferated since the international aid money started arriving. What do you do? Your boat was damaged but not that badly. Your friends are asking for big boats with motors. They will be able to fish further and catch more. Some people are saying that the seas are already over-fished anyway and that these boats will only exacerbate the depletion of existing stocks. But that’s in the future. You need to make a living today. You need to be competitive.
The trader
You were a small trader before the tsunami. Not poor but doing quite well. You lost your house and they won’t let you rebuild because your land lies within the 100-metre coastal construction exclusion zone that the government declared within days of the disaster. Your business has collapsed. It was a cash-in-hand type of enterprise and you had borrowed heavily to support it, using your property as collateral. Now that your house has gone, the bank has foreclosed on your loans. You haven’t been able to claim compensation because your title deeds were washed away in the tsunami and reestablishing ownership is a lengthy and complicated process. Like everyone else you know, you had no insurance. Even if you had been able to rebuild you wouldn’t have been able to afford it because since the tsunami the cost of local materials has soared and construction worker salaries have trebled. Anyway, the government says the land was not really yours because the Coast Conservation Act had prohibited building in that area since 1981, even if they had chosen not to enforce these regulations for over 20 years. Now you are living in a tent with your family in the grounds of a school, awaiting transfer to a transitional shelter a few kilometres inland on the edge of a swamp where they have to bring in water every day because of the saline water in the wells. The camp is near the temporary shelters occupied by those displaced by conflict for the past 15 years. You are getting food rations and a small amount of money each month from the local government administration. It’s enough to survive. If you move elsewhere you might be able to use your market savvy to start something new. But if you go, you will be on your own – no government aid, nothing. A local NGO says it will start a revolving loan scheme or provide grants so that people can start small business initiatives. They are talking about a few thousand rupees to rear goats and chickens. You used to have a daily turnover of 50,000 rupees (c$500) and employ five workers.
The semi-skilled labourer
You are a semi-skilled construction worker. Before the tsunami things were lean. You had to travel to the city for work and sometimes couldn’t find any. Since the tsunami there has been a building boom, providing temporary dwellings, transitional shelters and permanent homes. There are new schools to be constructed, roads to be repaired and bridges to be built. Wages have shot up and there is no shortage of work. The tsunami is the best thing that ever happened to you. Sometimes you wonder, though, what will happen after all the houses are built? How will you go back to 250 rupees a day ($2.50) after earning 750 for tsunami-related construction? And what will be the impact on the local employment market of all the masons and carpenters that the vocational training NGOs are now producing? Will the post-disaster reconstruction industry stimulate longterm development or will it all suddenly go bust when the humanitarian aid agencies go home?
Regarded by many as a reactive top-down response, the government’s decision to enforce the 1981 Coast Conservation Act, which prohibits construction within 100 metres of the mean high tide mark, has effectively deprived hundreds of thousands of tsunamidisplaced people of the opportunity to rebuild their original homes. Although this policy is informed by sound ecological arguments (encouraging mangroves and sand dunes to regenerate) and emergency preparedness arguments (reducing vulnerabilities by establishing a physical buffer zone against future hazards), the interrelation between property ownership and livelihoods appears to have been largely overlooked. Given the questionable legality of coastal tenures and the problem of making claims in the absence of title documentation, securing state compensation for lost property is likely to be a lengthy and complex process during which time livelihoods are effectively put on hold.
The fishing community was one of the sectors worst affected by the tsunami. Although the government has promised to restore lost livelihoods for fisher-folk, the lack of capacity within the state bureaucracy to cope with these claims has resulted in serious delays over compensation. Humanitarian aid organisations have stepped in to try to plug this gap. However, due to the enormous amounts of funding being mobilised by the local and international NGO community, this has become an extremely competitive environment. As the case of the fishing boats reveals, aid organisations are competing for a space in which to help by offering a diverse array of appealing livelihood assets. In the short term such practices may have a benefit on livelihoods as fisher-folk can immediately restart their trade. In the longer term, however, the implications for sustainable livelihoods may be disastrous. Providing ad hoc assets without community consultation and participation in analysing the potential impact on local relationships, market capacity and the environment could result in rapid degradation of available fish stocks. This would undermine livelihoods in the longer term and increase the likelihood of inter-communal tensions in an already ethnically charged conflict-affected environment.
There are of course both winners and losers in post-tsunami Sri Lanka. As the semiskilled labourer’s case shows, the construction industry is experiencing an unprecedented boom. New markets have also emerged in accommodation and transport for the hundreds of new international humanitarian aid programmes. Unfortunately, these new opportunities are something of a double-edged sword, bringing temporary prosperity for some but rendering goods and services unaffordable for others.
Post-tsunami livelihoods have become inextricably intertwined with government policy and administration, the shift in labour needs, market priorities and demands, and the proliferation of international and local humanitarian aid organisations operating in affected areas. Urgent action needs to be taken to address the issue of livelihoods in a timely, coherent, strategic and equitable manner, ensuring that policies and practices integrate local participation, decision making and environmental protection, and reduce disaster-related vulnerabilities. Otherwise, the long-term prospects for sustainable livelihoods may be bleak for those most affected by the tsunami. Simon Harris has recently completed post-graduate studies at the Refugee Studies Centre, University of Oxford and is the Sri Lanka Tsunami Emergency Coordinator for Christian Aid. Email:

Six months on: facing fears
by Lyndon Jeffels
Since 1987 UNHCR has provided protection and assistance to those displaced by the twenty-year-long civil war in Sri Lanka. UNHCR has extended its role to assist in the post-tsunami humanitarian crisis.
It was 9.30am on 26 December 2004 when Mary Theresa Rajeswaran heard what she thought was an approaching military vehicle. Cooking in her kitchen, Mary only became concerned when shouts and screams accompanied the roaring noise outside. Taking her daughter Nanthani by the hand, they went to see what was causing the commotion. Outside, a crowd of people were running towards a hastily receding ocean. Moments later, Mary saw a fifteen foot wave thundering towards her. Protected from the initial impact by a building in front of her house, Mary grabbed Nanthani and ran inland. Finding herself at a dead-end, Mary turned to escape but the first wave had already caught up with her, throwing her and two-year-old Nanthani onto barbed wire fencing. Grabbing at the spikes with one hand and holding her daughter with the other, Mary was half-conscious, realising only that the wave was quickly retreating.
Injured and tired, Mary took Nanthani to safety and began looking for her six-year-old son. However, as she started to walk over to the place where she had last seen him, the second wave threw her back onto the barbed wire fencing. “I felt not a single sensation in my body,” she says, “I felt nothing but the pain of having lost my son.” Dragged by the current for nearly an hour, Mary recalls the ashy hue and warmth of the enveloping sea. Above her she describes the sky as “dark and brooding”, with rain persistently hurtling down.
Found by her family sometime later, Mary refused to go to the hospital for treatment. “My son’s safety was the most important thing for me. I couldn’t leave without knowing he was safe,” she explains. It was not until later the same afternoon that Mary’s son returned home, having taken sanctuary in his school throughout the tsunami. A relieved Mary was then taken to Point Pedro Hospital. With heavy bruising, twisted limbs and cuts, Mary required seven stitches.
“My husband is not working at present as his boat is broken,” Mary declares. “Since the tsunami, we have all been too scared to return to living by the sea. We are now 750 metres inland, safe from any future tsunamis.” The dilemma for Mary’s family and many others like them is whether or not they should return to the ocean on which their livelihoods have depended for generations or stay away from the shore, safe but without access to a reliable income and the place they used to call home. UNHCR’s response In the aftermath of the tsunami, UNHCR has distributed nearly 500,000 non-food relief items to more than 160,000 people. These included plastic sheets, tents, mosquito nets, cooking equipment and utensils, towels, soap, buckets, clothing and other basic items.
We have also taken a lead role in supporting the Sri Lankan government’s efforts to coordinate the transitional shelter sector. We have worked with partners to bridge the gap
between emergency shelter and reconstruction and build temporary houses before the onset of monsoon rains.
UNHCR has developed a variety of guidance documents and checklists relating to transitional shelter which have been developed in conjunction with beneficiaries, the Sri Lankan authorities and other humanitarian agencies. The UNHCR-convened Shelter and Settlement Forum ensures that gender, environmental and other considerations will be taken into account during construction of transitional and permanent housing for those displaced by the tsunami.
In addition to coordinating this sector, UNHCR is also building around 3,000 temporary shelters in Jaffna and Ampara Districts. Designs vary between locations due to differing climatic, social and local resource factors. 1,408 shelters in Jaffna will be completed in June 2005, with 2,442 transitional shelters in Ampara scheduled to be built by September 2005. The transitional shelters in Ampara (measuring 3 x 4 metres) comprise two partitioned rooms, are built within a galvanised iron frame and are compliant with the internationally-recognised SPHERE standards for a family of five. The brick foundation provides a firm impregnable base, with upper walls of plywood. The shelters can be disassembled and reassembled in another location if necessary. The roofs are made of zinc aluminium. Though more expensive than tin, it does not conduct as much heat, ensuring greater comfort for those living inside. The need to keep occupants cool is also recognised through the inclusion of a gap between the top of the outside walls and the zinc aluminium roof.
Those completed in Jaffna will provide safe, dignified and durable shelter for Mary and the rest of her community in Kallady, Point Pedro. Among the others benefiting will be her brother, Thamilagan, who tragically lost his wife, twin babies, mother-in-law, brother and sister-in-law and their daughter during the tsunami disaster. Displaced three times by the conflict, Thamilagan, 30, is from Matharankerny in Jaffna. Situated just 50 metres from the coast, his village lost 189 people to the tsunami. Thamilagan describes the sound of “fire crackers and a heavy popping noise” outdoors on the day of the tsunami. The cracks around his front door and windows started to let in water. “Before I knew what was happening, the walls caved in and a rush of water washed away everything in sight,” he says. “My father-in-law grabbed the twins but could not hold onto them as the force of the water was too strong.” Floating nearly 1km from his home, Thamilagan eventually tried to make his way back but his foot had been crushed by falling bricks and he could not walk. Found later in the afternoon by the police, Thamilagan was taken to Jaffna Teaching Hospital where he remained for three days without word as to the whereabouts of his family, before a relative delivered the terrible news. Now severely scarred, crippled with grief and suffering from depression and survivor’s guilt, Thamaligan asks: “Why am I the only one alive?” Having earned his living as a fisherman, Thamilagan has a usable boat and work is currently underway to clear the mass of debris blocking the harbour. But the painful memories linger and returning to the sea “will only remind me of those I lost”.
This dilemma is echoed throughout all the island’s tsunami affected communities. For now, organisations like UNHCR can only listen and assist those whose lives have been shattered by an ocean which sustained them for so long. Lyndon Jeffels is an UNHCR Associate Information Officer in Colombo. Email: For more information on transitional shelters and UNHCR’s other work in Sri Lanka, visit:

Indian symposium reviews tsunami response
report by Paula Banerjee and Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury
A symposium of academics and human rights activists organised by the Calcutta Research Group assessed the extent to which relief and rehabilitation initiatives in Tamil Nadu and the Andaman and Nicobar islands have recognised the rights of those affected to receive aid without discrimination based on caste, religion or gender.
Tamil Nadu
Speakers at the symposium1 noted that the first response from the Government of India and the Tamil Nadu state government to the needs of the 2.73 million people affected by the giant waves was hesitant. As initial rescue and relief efforts were led by civil society organisations, government-directed relief efforts failed to recognise that the situation of some groups was worse than others. State programmes were shaped by preconceived notions of relief and rehabilitation needs. Amidst the urgent need to provide food to the most vulnerable, aid agencies were left grappling with confusion created by inconsistent government policies. The needs of many tsunami-affected women, children and aged people and members of the dalit (so-called ‘untouchables’) and other discriminatedagainst
minorities have still not been met.
Although fishing communities have received disproportionately more help than other victims, fewer than a third of fishermen in Tamil Nadu have resumed fishing. Rehabilitation of the fishing communities is being considered from a short-term perspective. Four-fifths of aid to fishing communities has been in the form of loans. Fishermen fear they will not be able to repay them as they have lost most of their belongings. Mining companies involved in sand collection are acting as if no displacement has taken place in the region and their activities are insufficiently regulated.
Some families claim their land could have been saved if mining companies had not been allowed to continue removing sand. Destruction of mangroves has worsened soil erosion. While there has been no shortage of funds, accountability has been poor. The Asian Development Bank made substantial resources available to the state government and the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund and the Chief Minister’s Relief Fund are well-endowed. There is growing demand for greater transparency about the use of available funds both by the government agencies and by NGOs.
Relief operations were often insensitive:
> Wagon-loads of quilts arrived from northern India but were of no use to tsunamivictims in hot and humid Tamil Nadu.
> Donations of poor-quality second-hand clothes were angrily rejected by fishing communities.
> Both district administrators and local panchayats (village councils) marginalised women: female civil servants were not deployed to assist in relief operations and male officials were insensitive to the needs of women and children: women, for example, were given sarees but no undergarments.
> Relief money was given to male heads of household – and compensation for lost relatives given to men – without any effort to ensure it was not misspent.
> Photographers jostled each other to get snaps of helpless destitute women.
> Chapattis were provided to people whose staple diet is rice.
Many local and international NGOs with substantial remaining funds are finding it difficult to disburse them as the Government of India’s desire to enforce pre-tsunami coastal area regulations prevents the construction of houses for tsunami victims or providing them with livelihood-related assets. The decision to relocate people 200 metres from the shoreline is controversial. There is a lack of transparency about enforcement of the coastal regulations. Many question the legality of the ban and fear that forcible relocation opens the way for multinational corporations to gain control of coastal areas.
There has been no coordination among government departments and no comprehensive rehabilitation policy. The burden of providing proof of entitlement to support has now fallen to the victims. Both political parties and women’s organisations have tended to overlook the issue of discrimination against women in tsunami relief operations. The role played by Muslim organisations in relief operations has not been acknowledged. While the government listens to civil society organisations it does not always accept their recommendations.
Government officials seem primarily motivated by the need to maintain their image and avoid critical press coverage. A number of NGOs seem mainly interested in courting favourable media publicity. One participant noted that three sets of people have benefited from the disaster: hotel owners, car rental companies and unscrupulous local NGOs who have earned money from acting as disaster tour guides.
The state still determines who will provide aid and who will not. The role of civil society institutions may be expanding, and the Indian middle classes and non-resident Indians have provided significant resources, but it is still the state which scrutinises civil society, not the other way round. Continental mindset shapes Andaman and Nicobar assistance The remote Andaman and Nicobar islands are a series of islands in the Bay of Bengal – stretching over an area of more than 700km from north to south – which lie 1,200 km east
of the Indian mainland. Being closer to Sumatra, the Nicobars – entry to which is strictly controlled by the Indian authorities – were worse affected by the tsunami and at least 3,000 people from aboriginal tribes are estimated to have died. The islands lack local democratic governance and legislative structures, and have long been subject to inappropriate development schemes imposed by ‘mainlanders’. The damage done by these to the fragile coastal environment had been exacerbated by violations of the coastal no-build zone regulations by members of the local elite and the Indian Air Force. In the absence of political organisation and civil society, a bureaucratic response to relief requirements was inevitable. The Indian government did not welcome UN or other international assistance in assessing loss and damage. India refused to accept foreign funding for relief operations but encouraged Indian NGOs to transfer money to the local administration. UNICEF was the only international organisation allowed to operate across the archipelago. The International Red Cross complained that its supplies were seized on arrival at Port Blair. Foreign journalists and aid workers were confined to Port Blair and not permitted to travel to any of the outlying islands.
In the absence of any consultation with local communities and the effective sidelining of the civilian administration, relief and rehabilitation operations have been led by the Indian military. It is vital, however, that the views and needs of local people be considered and their indigenous knowledge respected. Nicobarese fishermen, for example, refused to accept the mainland-manufactured fishing equipment provided in the post-tsunami period as it was inappropriate for their needs.
As a result of the disaster, fishing communities in the islands are likely to be affected, mangrove forest to be denuded and corals to be damaged. There is also a risk of major ethnic strife between tribal communities – now only 12% of the population of the islands – and outsiders.
Lessons learned
The tsunami has highlighted the urgent need to rethink the role of the state vis-à-vis civil society and communities in the context of relief operations. Key policy recommendations emerging from the symposium are that:
> There should be greater coordination among relief agencies and sharing of information about disaster impacts and victims’ needs.
> Relief should be driven by the needs of affected communities, not supply-driven.
> Tsunami-affected communities should decide what kind of relief is suitable for them: panchayats should have a greater role in preparing for, and responding to, disasters.
> Women’s voices should be given priority in all aspects of relief and rehabilitation.
> Discrimination in relief provision – on the basis of caste, gender and economic status – must be tackled.
> The special character of the Andaman and Nicobar islands must be considered.
> Government agencies should be more transparent about how they spend postdisaster resources.
> Rehabilitation planners should monitor government land policies and their effects on rural economies
Paula Banarjee, a member of FMR’s Editorial Advisory Board, is Research Coordinator of the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group ( Email: Sabyasachi Basu Ray Chaudhury is a member of MCRG and also teaches at the Department of Political Science, Rabindra Bharati University, Kolkata. Email:
A full report of the symposium is online at:
1 The speakers at the symposium were: Dr. Louis (People’s Watch, Tamil Nadu ); Bimla Chandrasekhar (Ekta Resource Centre for Women, Tamil Nadu; K.M. Parivelan (humanitarian activist, also working at the UNHCR office at Chennai, Tamil Nadu); Partha Guha (Child in Need Institute, Kolkata; Samir Acharya (Society for Andaman and Nicobar Ecology and Subir Bhowmick (CRG member, and BBC employee).