Reconstruction PottuVille, Abay

Post-tsunami Reconstruction in Sri Lanka:

an Analysis of Newspaper Content

by Dileep Chandralal

Professor of Okinawa University

1. Introduction

I have done a survey of newspapers as proxies of media coverage of the post-tsunami recovery situation, focusing on different perspectives on the reconstruction effort. It reveals the practices taken by different sectors, sections or groups, the responses of the affected communities or opinion leaders, the tensions between different social groups or camps and the lack of mutuality and cooperation.

The social context of post-tsunami construction can be divided into two large areas: one area includes the representation of the local community and the other that of foreign participants. Crosscutting these divisions, at the background level, there was a wide range of interest groups such as governments, political organisations, independent bodies, NGOs and activists, academics and professionals, social workers, and individual volunteers. The represented discourses inherently invoke a consideration of differences reflecting writersa?? loyalties to different social groups. The focus of the study was how the text producers, strongly backed up by their respective social contexts, produced the texts and messages, depicting different world views and bearing different results for agenda setting.

My text corpus consists of, mainly, newspapers published during the year 2005. A period of one year was thought of as an appropriate period for depicting individual or collective reflections of, and responses for, the tragedy itself. Moreover, it was during this period that national and international media were bursting at the seams with continuous deliberations, ideas and arguments on post-tsunami reconstruction.

2. Analysis

From the beginning, it appeared that reconstruction work was hampered by bureaucratic inefficiency, corruption, lack of coordination and confusion, especially caused by the new land-use rules. How the bureaucratic red tape and incompetence on the part of the government was responsible for the chaos and confusion surrounding the rebuilding effort was a favourite subject-matter for reportage in both local and international newsprint. The Washington Post (March 9, 2005:12) and The Times (June 26, 2005:14) carried lengthy articles with photos and maps on their feature pages for world news.

Newspapers also revealed how the new settlement rule sparked a controversy by favouring wealthy businessmen and hotel owners over fishermen and other traditional coastal dwellers and that the government was unable to clarify the rules in a convincing manner. (The Island, March 1, 2005). Decisions on settlements were taken without consulting with affected communities or caring for local needs. The reconstruction process including the issue of relocation of land and housing and township planning was conducted from the center level without giving appropriate decision making capacity to the local level.

The incompetence and inefficiency of the government was contrasted with the speed and efficiency demonstrated by the rebel group of Tamil Tigers (Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE). The headlines “Tamil rebels bring discipline to relief effort” (AP news, The Daily Yomiuri, January 4, 2005) and “Tamil Tigers direct relief effort: In ruined town, rebels out perform government officials in aid, cleanup” (The Washington Post, January 5, 2005) are suggestive of carefully textured stories. The rebelsa?? performance was described by the writers as a breathtaking display of precision, planning and coordination.

As to counterbalance the picture, the Washington Post (January 23, 2005) published a news item in narrative style choosing a 34-year government employee as the main actor. The background of the story is related to an isolated fishing village called Sarvodayapuram belonging to the Pottuvil administrative division on Sri Lankaa??s hard-hit southeastern coast. Story begins by saying that the waves had just destroyed his home and office, left much of his village in ruins and killed 13 relatives, including his mother and sister. Despite all this personal and communal devastation, he braved to shoulder the primary burden of running relief efforts for the 430 families he served as chief administrator in the village.

At the end of the story, however, the writer does not forget to make another comparison, this time with international aid workers: “In any case, Razik (the government servanta??s name) perseveres. One afternoon last week, he looked on a bit forlornly as a brand-new four-wheel-drive, filled with French aid workers, rolled past on its way to the relief camp that is his primary responsibility. Razik had business at the camp, too, but he has had no transportation since the tsunami claimed his motorcycle. Eventually he found someone to lend him a bicycle and pedalled off through the rice paddies in the direction of the displaced families.” With this powerful imagery employed by the writer, as he initially intended to draw, the diminutive civil servant turns out to be the unlikely relief coordinator with much dedication towards displaced families.

Another story that appeared in the World Report section of Los Angeles Times (January 17, 2005), covering the space of one and half page and including very impressive photos, vividly profiled a village community in the Sri Lankan southern coast. The article titled as “A community remains intact” described how the village people recalled their trauma and loss from the tsunami, but the instinct to rebuild remained stirring amid the wreckage. After adding a brief critique of the slow pace of governmenta??s recovery work and defects of relocation policy process, the writer hailed the town as a model for “those trying to figure out how to make something out of nothing after losing so much.” While the ravaged local towns or town officials were greeted with acclamation, on the other side of the coin, there was a government that had to survive the waves of ruthless criticism. The May 28 editorial of the Daily Telegraph was sharply critical towards the Sri Lankan government, putting it as “Sri Lankaa??s shame”.

However, news articles didna??t hesitate to reveal that there were some other blameworthy sections, too. There appeared news reports claiming that many NGOs who received large funds from international organisations for reconstruction work did not use them for the purpose. Critics pointed out that donors were slower to spend the money than to raise it. Of the $2 billion or so in promised aid that the government of Sri Lanka was tracking, only $1 billion had actually been handed over, and only $ 141 million of that has been spent (The economist, Dec. 24-Jan. 6 issue, 2005).

International NGOs and charity organisations also showed their ineptitude in evaluating local needs. The AP news from the southern city of Sri Lanka, titled as “Tsunami-hit Sri Lanka struggles with unusable aid”, said that “seven weeks after the disaster, no one knows what to do with some supplies piled up at government buildings, aid agencies and refugee camps”, and highlighted the common plea made by authorities, aid workers and the displaced, “no more clothes and bottled waters, please” (The Daily Yomiuri, February 13, 2005). The report pointed out the mismatch in concrete term: “In a country where most people wear flip-flops or sandals, some boxes held only used shoes, including soccer cleats, boots and silver evening shoes with 10 centimeter heels.”

According to The Times article on October 9, 2005, The World Disasters Report written by independent experts had uncovered another aspect of the disaster. The article highlighted the reporta??s claim that the UN failed to coordinate and unite its own agencies, let alone the other organisations. Some writers did not forget to reveal how aid workers lapped up the luxury available amidst confusion and chaos.

We can also observe a conflict between professional aid workers and amateur volunteer workers working in disaster zones, with reports expressing considerable ambivalence about the contribution made by inexperienced volunteer workers. It is widely known that the wider publicity given to the disaster and the relative ease of access brought an awful lot of agencies and individual volunteer workers to the disaster zones; some of them whom came without much planning and experience, no doubt, caused duplication of work. The World Disaster Report noted that some local emergency services became furious at “disaster tourists” taking the place of doctors (The Times, October 9, 2005).

The Washington Post (May 29, 2005) carried a detailed news story about two separate young women who arrived in Sri Lanka with fresh hopes and good intentions to work in an ad hoc recovery effort and found themselves disappointed, facing repeated setbacks.

The writer has pointed out that not only incompetence and bureaucracy on the part of the government but the passivity, lethargy and the sense of dependence of refugees also have been responsible for confining thousands of them into sweltering temporary camps. It might be hard for enthusiastic freelancers to understand the passivity of these people during the short period they were staying there. As far as I noticed, none of local news papers dared to mention of this aspect of Sri Lankan society even in a scant way. That is where outsidersa?? perspectives become a??significant othersa??.

Granted the sheer scale of the devastation itself, public sector was bound to show stronger skills for negotiations, supervision and coordination, whereas private sector and non-government groups were expected to promote a bottom-up approach strengthening consultation and information networking.

In fact, without such a co-existence policy, vulnerable sections of the society seemed to be exposed to further dangers. Showing this naked exposure of vulnerable sections in the post-tsunami society, both local and international news papers addressed the question of protecting children in tsunami-hit area with particular attention. How women and children become vulnerable and are prone to harassment in the aftermath of calamities was shown by reporting several alleged cases of abuse and attempted rape of children in the wake of the tsunami.

While the local media were quick to reveal the LTTEa??s attempts to recruit children as soldiers to compensate for cadres lost in the disaster, they seemed to have paid scant attention to the overall problems and the scale of the devastation brought by the waves in the North and East, where people had been battered by the 20-year civil conflict. The complexities of the reconstruction effort were widely evident in this area because their recovery, both physical and emotional, was aggravated by conflict-related problems. Since there have been cases of internally displaced persons living in camps over a decade, the ensuring of equal distribution of aid was a difficult task. Mostly it was the foreign correspondents that paid quick attention to such complexities (see, for example, Washington Post (January 23, March 9 and May 1, 2005) and AP news (The Daily Yomiuri, January 4, 2005).

News papers had also initiated a dialogue on the importance of inclusion of ethnic minorities in the reconstruction process. Whether actual or perceived, there had been a sense of victimisation more ore less prevailing among the members of different ethnic groups. Tamil tsunami victims complained that government leaders or officials didna??t bother to visit their camps to see their plight. They tended to perceive that the problems caused by the governmenta??s partial policies or inertia put their lives into inevitable difficulties. (The Island, May 11, 2005)

Meanwhile, according to a local news item, Muslim people complained that “the lethargy shown by responsible officials in not visiting affected areas, even weeks after the tragedy, has added the sense of helplessness among the people.” (The Island, February 9, 2005) Yet another article appeared in Sunday Observer (January 23, 2005) calling attention to the “Forgotten Batticaloa Burghers: Caught up in the tsunami.”

The discourse about ethnic minorities, as discussed above, employed the same rule in building their arguments or voicing their grievances. Knowledge of all the communities, including the majority for that matter, seems to be based on the idea of difference. The discursive formation that links all these statements is a??we are mutually exclusive; our problems cannot be understood by the members of other communities; hence only we should be entrusted with the task of handling our problems.a?? The situation being such, the newspaper articles only reflected the features of the prevailing national discourse of the country built along ethnic divisions.

The biggest pandemonium that reigned across the island was over the governmenta??s proposal to share tsunami relief aid with separatist Tamil rebels. The aid-sharing proposal called Joint Mechanism (JM) attracted much opposition from various quarters including the majority and even some minorities. This situation of collisions and juxtapositions not only suggested how deep ethnic divisions are but also brought to notice that petty human squabbles that were submerged and proved futile in the wake of overwhelming disaster can revive as time rolls on.?

3. Conclusion

The varied range of discourses had been created through a rhetorical process full of contradictions and disparities. The contradictions reveal the complexities of contexts and the limitations of human actors. However, objective characterization of events took a predominant place in news coverage. The discourses revealed interlocking structures of ethnic exclusionism, sexism, elitism and bureaucracy interwoven with the reconstruction process. Also revealed were egoistic motives, political mileage and competition among different groups or NGOs.

All these behavioural patterns reflected a conscious or unconscious belief in oppression, patriarchal domination and top-down approach prevailing in the society. This shows how the reconstruction effort was marked by the devaluation of the oral and the local. The inescapable inference is that the present political and public administrative framework situated the shared experiences of the tsunami-affected communities in a context of forces of domination, distance, and depravity. The missing aspects were cooperation, community, mutual recognition and open communication. While the post-tsunami reconstruction was an important site for local and international interface, encompassing a massive global response to a community breakup, the interfaces between policies and needs, between the center and local levels, between relief operators and affected communities were inadequate.

To break these repressive deadlocks, a new communication process bypassing the tensions of individuals, social groups and ethnic communities has to be facilitated. This analysis suggests that it is imperative to adopt a more bottom-up, consultative-participatory approach for a long-term reconstruction process after any disaster.


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