|Sunday, 27 February 2005|
A wake-up call to all Sri Lankans
"There is only one thing that remains to us
On Sunday, 26th December 2004, Sri Lanka experienced a terrible disaster - perhaps the worst natural disaster ever to befall our island nation in its 2,500 years of recorded history. The giant tidal waves ('Tsunami') that swept over two thirds of Sri Lanka's coastline resulted in the death of over 30,000 people in a matter of minutes.
Approximately 3,500 more are reported to be "missing"; the number of houses destroyed is estimated at 20,000. Over half a million people have been displaced and compelled to seek shelter in schools, temples, churches, kovils, mosques and open tents.
These are the living victims - those fortunate enough to have survived. Some of them are injured and maimed. Some others carry hidden scars - shock and trauma. There are many children at these shelters - some having lost both parents, others lucky to have at least one parent alive.
Many families have been rendered destitute - having lost all their material possessions and means of livelihood. Damage to infra-structure and public property has been colossal. The total economic damage to Sri Lanka's economy has yet to be quantified. The environmental damage may be even more difficult to quantify. "We have been knocked out flat - dazed, wounded and shocked"!
As we gradually recover from the initial shock and pain, we begin to realise that almost every Sri Lankan family has been affected by this tragedy. We have all lost someone - a spouse, a child, a parent, brother or sister, a 'distant relative'; a friend, or a colleague at the work place. Some have lost their entire family!
"I sought to hear the voice of God,
And climbed the topmost steeple.
But God declared: Go down again,
I dwell among the people"
Public response has been spontaneous, generous and truly magnificent - on a scale never before seen in our country. No sooner did local people hear about the disaster, they responded with God like compassion.
People from all walks of life and strata, even little children, dug into their "piggy banks" (tills) to contribute money to help "our suffering Tsunami victims". Others collected food (dry rations) drinking water, clothing, cooking utensils, cash to buy medicines.
Young men and women formed themselves into groups and flocked to the affected areas - Galle, Hambantota, Ampara, Trincomalee and Batticaloa to "help in any way" they could. Rich traders and 'transport agents' volunteered to provide vehicles; contractors provided tractors and bulldozers to help clear the rubble of collapsed buildings in the Tsunami ravaged areas. Some women were so moved by this tragedy, that they gifted their personal jewellery to raise money for the 'Tsunami relief fund'.
The armed services, police, public servants, clergy of all religions; academics and professionals and the corporate sector - also politicians of all hues - red, blue, green etc. rushed to assist our people in need".
Only a few days ago, the Venerable Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera narrated the touching story of a young woman at a 'relief centre' - a mother who had lost her infant in the Tsunami - she was seen breast feeding another infant who had lost both its parents.
She cared not whether this child was Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim. As far as she was concerned, this was a baby in need, and she just did what she had to do - hold the child to her own breast and ensure that at least this baby would live. If that isn't the milk of human kindness, what is it?
'Gamarala' had never seen such compassion and generosity in all his life. Was this really my country-our people? He pinched himself to make sure he wasn't dreaming!
"The most sublime courage I have ever witnessed has Come among that class too poor to know they possessed it, and too humble for the world to discover it."
- George Bernard Shaw
'Civil society' in Sri Lanka had truly 'awakened' to the task of disaster relief and civic action on a scale never before seen in our land. To fully comprehend the significance and potential of this transformation, we must reflect on life in our country before the Tsunami struck us.
Pre Tsunami Situation
Disasters like the Tsunami compel us to reflect and take stock of things. It could have a cathartic effect on our lives, and the future of our nation. Let us reflect on the pre-Tsunami period - perhaps going as far back as 4th Feb. 1948 (Independence day).
We were a multi-ethnic, multi-religious society living in harmony despite other differences of caste, and class (rich/poor) when our colonial masters - the British - Granted independence in 1948.
During the five decades that followed, ethnic divisions between the Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority widened alarmingly resulting in several clashes between these two communities leading to the creation of the LTTE and its call for a separate State. A neglected southern province, limited employment opportunities for southern youth and insensitive government policies led to the formation of the militant JVP.
Continued neglect and repression of their just demands for a more equitable sharing of resources and more jobs, by successive governments, resulted in two insurrections (1971) and (1988-90). Civil war in the North and East and the JVP insurrections cost this nation dearly. Sri Lanka lost the 'cream, of its youth.
These two events also accelerated the 'brain drain' - Sri Lanka lost some of its most talented and creative professionals - men and women of high integrity - who saw no hope for themselves and their children in 'mother Lanka'.
Open economic policies ('globalization') initiated in 1978, and continued with gay abandon for the next 25 years, widened the gap between rich and poor - the rich (mainly confined to the urban areas in the Western Province) became richer, while the rural population engaged predominantly in agriculture and fisheries (constituting the majority of the population), experienced increasing marginalization and pauperization.
Malnutrition increased; loss of food security, cultural erosion, environmental degration, increased bribery and corruption in the public service - a frightening increase in crime and violence against women, indiscipline in our schools and universities, recurrent 'strikes' and 'work to rule' campaigns even in the "essential services", increasing intolerance of opposing views (unthinkable in a democracy). Drug abuse, child abuse, increased prostitution, alcoholism, racism, religious conflict, political opportunism and squabbling over petty issues.
To be continued
Produced by Lake House