Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Tsunami: The Process of Healing

Text of speech made by Industries, Tourism and Investment Promotion Minister Anura Bandaranaike, at the forum of the Sri Lanka-America Friendship Society

I am delighted to be a part of this forum, at a time when every Sri Lankan is especially grateful, for our long friendship with the United States of America; one that we see, manifest now in the partnership that Her Excellency Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga - President of Sri Lanka and His Excellency George W. Bush, President of the United States of America, have demonstrated in the fight against global terrorism; one that touched every Sri Lankan heart, when the former Presidents, George Bush and Bill Clinton visited the innocent children, separated from their loved ones by the tsunami, and now living in welfare centres.

The tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka on the morning of December 26, was the most destructive natural disaster, in our recorded history. 30,974 people died, 4,698 people are yet missing, 553,287 people have been displaced, 1,169 children have been orphaned, 3,729 children have lost one parent, 114,000 houses destroyed.

The tsunami that struck our shores, did not discriminate. It destroyed Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim homes. It destroyed the lives of Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists. Within hours of the event, Sri Lanka had united. In true Sri Lankan tradition, those who were fortunate were helping those who had been stricken.

The first Prime Minister of India - Jawaharlal Nehru, said:

A time comes in the life time of a man, a society, or a

Nation, when a call to duty is ordained by destiny;

It rings out loud and clear,

It cannot be deaf to the call of a Nation"

One hundred days ago, in the immediate impact of this horrendous disaster, all sections of our multi-structured society responded magnanimously and positively. Under the leadership of Her Excellency the President, the institutional mechanisms for relief operations were set up promptly, and without delay, under the Presidential Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation (TAFREN).

Despite the never-ending barrage of often-lopsided criticism of State agencies, alleging inaction, in fairness to the State agencies, both at the center and the periphery, it must be admitted, that there was a significant measure of success in relief operations in immediate response to the disaster.

None died of starvation or famine; none died for lack of medical care; there were no outbreaks of disease, when epidemics of various sorts were expected, which was ratified by the World Health Organisation; law and order was effectively maintained and the authorities ensured that there was no replay of scenes so vividly brought to life by Decaprio and Lewis in the movie 'Gangs of New York'.

Thank God for that. Basic infrastructure such as roads, telecommunications and electricity restored within a week; In a few days our engineers of the much-malign Ceylon Government Railway, restored 40 kilometres of railway track - acclaimed by the BBC as a heroic response by a dedicated set of people.

The first phase of the rescue and relief operation was, in my view, handled admirably well, by the Sri Lankan Government and its organisations. In fact, visiting dignitaries such as Kofi Annan, Colin Powell, Paul Wolfensohn - President of the World Bank and so many other world leaders, shared in this admiration of State-sector efficiency.

Many countries and world communities came to our aid and assistance, in various ways. It took my mind to what William Shakespeare wrote in the 'Merchant of Venice':

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven,
Upon the place beneath; it is twice bless'd
It bleseth him that gives, and him that takes,
It is mightiest in the mightiest; it becomes
The throned monarch, better than his crown;
His scepter shows the force of temporal power,
The attribute to awe and majesty,
Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;
But mercy is above this sceptred sway,
It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,
It is an attribute to God himself.

Amongst others, America and American friends of Sri Lanka have helped us, in numerous ways, in our times of need. American marines worked shoulder to shoulder with Sri Lankans to clear the wreckages and rubble; to this we are indeed grateful!

This crisis that affected all races, particularly destroying the North and East of the country, has given a golden opportunity for those who have been at war with the State, for the last 20 years, to come into a feasible arrangement with the Government of Sri Lanka to ensure that the tsunami relief reaches their people, without making political points. The lives of the Tamil people and the rehabilitation of the North and East, is important to us as the rest of the country.

Our Tamil brethren lost lives and livelihoods in Trincomalee and Batticaloa. Our Muslim brothers suffered likewise in Ampara in the East and the Sinhalese were affected in the South.

Immediate relief efforts did not in any way discriminate. Relief efforts took place in LTTE controlled areas as well as in Government-controlled areas. Sri Lanka's network of armed forces played a lead role in providing emergency rations, water and basic needs.

The men were mobilised for an unconventional 'war'. The part played by the hundreds of armed forces staff in the field and on the ground, though low-key and hardly acknowledged publicly, was a vital factor in the steady provision of essentials in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami. It was a reaching out to the hearts and minds of those who had suffered.

Today, this has translated into the LTTE and the Sri Lankan Government working out an agenda of relief assistance, together. Isn't this a reason for optimism? Perhaps we can win enough trust to sit together and discuss other matters as well.

What of the second phase, which has as its main objective, the normalisation of life of those shattered by the disaster. The short-term relief package covered the ration card, funeral benefits, kitchen utensils and resettlement allowance, within a total budget of Rs. 10,890 Million.

I believe this phase too has been more or less well handled in execution. The major issue in the second phase, for which a solution is yet not in place, relates to transitional shelter for those in uncomfortable tents, schools and temples or with relatives and friends in congested living rooms.

Here we see the worst of our society and systems emerging and active as a severe impediment to efficient solutions from the initial, positive emotions of magnanimity. We are shifting to our usual game of narrow minded, parochial, find-faulting, endless and destructive criticism, jealousy, petty politics, disgust and frustration, inefficiency and proliferation of corrupt practices.

The inherent weaknesses and restrained factors within the system, have caused confusion further aggravated by mushrooming of various individuals and agencies, some with their own disguised private agendas without a care for those devastated by the tsunami, and yet languishing hopelessly, under the sweltering heat of a tent meant for the cold climates of Scandinavia!

Working on the obviously wrong precept, that the State can do no good, there has been a mushrooming and unbelievable proliferation of a new society of over 6000 NGOs, some national and others international. I have no doubt that the majority of these NGOs, that are receiving billions of dollars from international donors, are well intentioned and doing a magnificent job.

Stories abound of the wrongful practices by certain NGOs, siphoning funds and material, even luxury vehicles, consumer electronics and material for their personal use, while victims of the tsunami continue to suffer.

A major drawback in the second phase of the relief effort has been the breakdown of coordination of relief activities and the hopeless lack of access to vital information.

Our private sector, I must say, magnificently rose to the occasion, displaying an incredibly high degree of responsibility. Companies sought out their employees who had "gone missing" in the aftermath, to ascertain the status of their well-being and safety.

Many private sector institutions, local and foreign investors and businesses have come forward to reconstruct the homes of those affected.

The events in the immediate aftermath of the tsunami also revealed woeful inadequacy of our disaster preparedness, when the waters receded, unwittingly, into the valley of death, rode our men, women and children.

For a country that has not experienced the full force of a tsunami, Sri Lanka was taken completely unawares, on the day after Christmas, when disaster struck. Even if people has been warned nobody would have believed it. Especially, as most of those who died, were in vehicles or entrails. Even the receding of the sea, unless you are an expert, you would not have known what it meant. Now the situation is different. The scale demonstrated on the 28th of March, when institutions and people responded to the possibility of a tsunami, diligently.

It is, however, perceived that we Sri Lankans have very short memories and that is true.

John F. Kennedy - a former President of the United States said, after the Cuban Missile Crisis:

"We can't win them all; I have been close enough to disaster to know that what seems worth sh..... one moment, You could barely remember the next"

I also believe that above all, a greater national awareness of disaster preparedness must be created amongst all segments of our society. This should be a subject in our school curriculum.

As for when the next tsunami will strike us, I cannot forecast as my expertise is politics and as in the past, I can only forecast with certainty, the events yet to unravel on the political stage. However, I would say, don't be afraid of the sea, despite the horrors of the tsunami, the sea is not a monster. Go enjoy your Sunday mornings on our golden beaches.

Let us now look at the reconstruction aspect in the aftermath. It provides a massive business opportunity for the building and construction industry. Where NGOs are involved, Sri Lanka's building industry will be able to work side-by-side with overseas companies, learning new techniques improving their knowledge and forging new links...... Yes, I would definitely consider tsunami reconstruction as an opportunity for our building and construction industry.

On the matter of housing, we are proud to note that foreign grants and other organizations have committed to re-build the entire housing sector of the affected, and today, most of the reconstruction of houses have been undertaken and commitments made. Like the phoenix rising out of his own ashes.... the reconstruction of what was lost, gives an opportunity to the construction industry to kick-start the economy, to revive itself.

As I have said before, at some length, there was national, political ethnic and ideological understanding across the political arena, immediately on the aftermath of the tsunami. Unfortunately, political perfidy overtook all that, and now bickering has begun on minor details, completely forgetting the large picture.

The Government that I represent knows that other leading political parties in Sri Lanka can show the required political maturity to come together in times of crisis. But there must be the political will to do so.

Our people, shedding political differences, rose to the occasion providing us - the country's leaders - with a shining example. Shouldn't we as the country's leaders humbly acknowledge and follow this example? I am sure you will agree that reflecting the best interests of our country and our people, it is very vital for all political parties to put aside petty politicking and work together if we are to create a united, prosperous country.

The Government that I represent has pledged to help our people to recover from this disaster with dignity, and accelerate the healing process. Therein lies the reason for my conviction that the aftermath of the tsunami can be used very effectively and creatively to resolve our national, political and ideological conflict and that we can build a united and prosperous country.

To them that have lost everything, their homes, their livelihoods their families and who have to deal with the trauma of the event, the terrible personal losses and grief of our people, the orphaned children, now learning to cope through school programmes, we can offer our sympathy and compassion and take heart from the words of James Wolfensohn - President World Bank.

"The only way to begin the process of healing from this terrible tragedy is to actively engage the people in decisions about their own recovery, and through this participation, give them hope".

As Minister of Tourism, I wish to place before you some of the strategies adopted by me and the Government for the revival of the industry. The tsunami disaster occurred at a time Sri Lanka tourism was heading for a permanent recovery, after facing continuous drawbacks from during the past two decades.

The highest arrivals of 566,202 recorded in the year 2004 while earning to the economy USD 416 million for the first time in the history of Sri Lanka tourism. Tourism generates 112,000 direct and indirect jobs.

As a result of the tsunami, 56 hotels along the East Coast, South Coast and the South West Coast, went out of business rendering 3,500 rooms un-operational. As a result of the mental trauma that was created in the minds of the tourists due to extensive international media publicity, several tour groups cancelled their scheduled travel to Sri Lanka during the winter season, which was a sad situation.

As a result, tourist arrivals during the months of January to February dropped by - 20% compared to the arrivals during the corresponding period in the year 2004. Hotel occupancy rate which was around 85% throughout the year 2004 dropped to 30 to 35% in January & February other than in Colombo hotels. To face this situation strategically, I appointed a Tourism Task Force which included top level hotel and travel industry personnel and senior officials and advised them to draw up an action plan for the resurgence of the declining tourism industry.

On their recommendation, the "Bounce Back Sri Lanka' advertising campaign was vigorously launched for confidence building and mind setting of the tourists.

I recall the tourism conference in Milan, Italy, specially designed to support tsunami affected countries including Sri Lanka, coincided with the BIT Trade Fair where I led a delegation. Likewise, the WTO appointed a task force committee to ascertain the various relief assistance to be given to Sri Lanka and other affected countries in which my Ministry Secretary is a member.

To restore accommodation facilities back to normal, the Government of Sri Lanka has agreed to introduce a duty free importation package for importation of material and equipment for refurbishment and reconstruction of the damaged hotel properties. To ease the financial difficulties faced by the industry, a special loan scheme has been introduced wherein an affected hotelier or a tourism businessman can obtain a loan of Rs. 10 million for a 6% interest with a grace period of one year.

My Government is taking measures to strengthen the administrative mechanism of the tourism industry to inject dynamism to tourism which has been already recognized as a thrust industry.

For this purpose a new tourism law will be brought to Parliament very soon for approval. This law proposes to set up a separate public and private sector driven bureau, to undertake tourism marketing and promotion in a professional manner.

This function is handled as of now by the Sri Lanka Tourist Board. With this new change the present Sri Lanka Tourist Board will be elevated to a Tourism Development Authority, which will exercise enforcement of regulations and Tourism Development, Research and International Affairs.

In conclusion let me quote one of the greatest poets and freedom fighters of India, Rabindranath Tagore:

"Where the mind is without fear
and the head is held high,
With courage and determination,
Into that heaven of freedom;
O' my Father lead my country..."


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