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PacNet #2B – After the Tsunami Disaster: Human Security is Key

The killer tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004 was of frightening proportions: Some 160,000 people are already counted among the victims in Indonesia’s Aceh Province, Sri Lanka, Thailand, India, Malaysia, and Maldives, in Asia alone. Although this disaster is dwarfed by the 1976 Tangshan earthquake, in which some 600,000 people perished, this tsunami is perhaps the first truly “global” catastrophe. 

Half of Thailand’s dead are believed to be foreigners, holidaying on its sunny beaches; besides Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans were among the victims. There were considerable numbers of foreigners on the Sri Lankan coast, as well as in Maldives. Thanks to globalization, this catastrophe was a “global event,” as also demonstrated by the moments of silence observed from Europe to Canada as well as the outpouring of grief and relief operations from the West, the UN, and other multinational institutions.

This disaster brings to mind five assessments of the tsunami’s aftermath. Hopefully, new opportunities will emerge from this crisis, as the Chinese word weiqi aptly signifies.

First, the tsunami should focus us on “nontraditional” or “soft” security, as opposed to “hard” security – conflict and war, terrorism, nuclear proliferation, chemical and biological warfare – to which we are more accustomed. “Soft” security includes transborder issues that affect the environment, the spread of disease, natural calamities, and transborder social problems (like trafficking of women, children, small arms, and ammunition/bomb-making facilities) that may affect security. 

The Dec. 26 tsunami-earthquake devastated a whole region; it was equal in its destructive power to an atomic bomb. In addition to the lives lost and property and wealth destroyed, security on the Indian Ocean rim was threatened, as occurs during war and conflict. A massive reconstruction effort has to be undertaken. The first fundamental lesson in assessing the tsunami aftermath is the realization that “soft” security concerns are just as important as “hard” security issues.

Second, the tsunami disaster has helped shift attention in the U.S. (though temporarily) from terrorism and toward development. Terrorism is not only a Western preoccupation. Jakarta has been battling separatists in Aceh who are accused of being terrorists; Bangkok has been at odds with Muslim terrorists in its southern provinces. Sri Lanka is battling “Tamil Tigers” along its north and east coasts and some tsunami-affected areas are under their control. 

But an “obsession” with terrorism a l’americaine is not in the core interests of developing nations, especially when terrorism could spring from under-development and the lack of social justice in developing countries and regions. Developed and developing nations have different priorities and agendas. Human security has a broader meaning in the developing world than the antiterror effort of Washington; the tsunami disaster brings a focus on this aspect of development, which the U.S. and the West have accepted and adopted in the tsunami’s aftermath.

Third, the casualties and the humanitarian relief effort prove that natural catastrophes know no religious distinctions, unlike terrorism; the dead include Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and Christian faiths. The outpouring of medical and relief assistance come not only from the West, but from Japan, China, South Korea, and other ASEAN countries. Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilizations” vanishes: death and aid know no creed or color in such global tragedies. We perish and come together as brothers and equals in the face of such a disaster! Indeed, U.S. military assistance and Western relief operations are entering areas in Aceh that have been closed to foreign scrutiny to offer timely assistance to the distressed.

Fourth, the massive aid distribution, debt moratorium, and reconstruction underscore the necessity of social redistribution in Asia.  Increasing GDP alone is not sufficient to guarantee social stability and peace in this region; the quality (and not just the quantity) of growth is essential to bind societies and maintain social stability and cohesion. The massive reconstruction efforts must not miss this crucial point. Indonesia’s Aceh, Sri Lanka’s eastern areas, Thailand’s “deep South,” and India’s Tamil Naidu state all urgently need developmental aid to “balance” the richer regions and provinces. Asia should use this disaster to ensure greater social and wealth redistribution within its economies, countries and regions to “guarantee” social stability.

Lastly, the relief operation has brought about a surge of goodwill and cooperation within Asia. From Singapore’s humanitarian operations and China’s generous offers of assistance to the funds pledged by Japan and Australia for reconstruction, Asian cooperation has risen a notch since Dec. 26. This may augur well, especially in the lead-up to the launch of the East Asia Summit (EAS) in Kuala Lumpur in November. China, which is slated to host the second summit in 2006, could encourage greater regional cooperation and integration to ensure a successful EAS.

Assessing the tsunami disaster and the relief cum-re-construction efforts could turn this disaster into an opportunity for Asia. Human security has truly emerged as key to Asia’s future stability and integration.     

Eric Teo Chu Cheow, a business consultant and strategist, is Council Secretary of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs. He can be reached at [email protected]