Tsunami Toll Nearly 70,000 and Rising
The known death toll from the tsunami keeps rising so rapidly that a daily weblog cannot hope to keep up with it. Early Wednesday am Reuters was giving 68,000. The largest number of dead were in Indonesia, then Sri Lanka, then India and then Thailand.
The horrific stories of corpses piled up on beaches or in trees, the neeed to bulldoze them into mass graves to dispel the spectre of disease, the wailing of relatives, the threat of cholera and other epidemics, finally filled the US media on Tuesday, as some sense of the full scale of the catastrophe finally began sinking in. The audio I heard of the wailing of relatives was the hardest to experience. The dead don’t mourn being dead, that is left to the living.
Such catastrophes can have a political impact and can affect security affairs. The failure of the Turkish government to respond in a timely manner to the 1999 earthquake sounded the death knell for the government of then prime minister Bulent Ecevit, and set the stage for the later victory at the polls of the Muslim reform party, Ak.
As John F. Harris and Robin Wright of the Washington Post cannily note, US President George W. Bush has missed an important opportunity to reach out to the Muslims of Indonesia. The Bush administration at first pledged a paltry $15 million, a mysteriously chintzy response to what was obviously an enormous calamity. Bush himself remained on vacation, and now has reluctantly agreed to a meeting of the National Security Council by video conference. If Bush were a statesman, he would have flown to Jakarta and announced his solidarity with the Muslims of Indonesia (which has suffered at least 40,000 dead and rising).
Indeed, the worst-hit area of Indonesia is Aceh, the center of a Muslim separatist movement, and a gesture to Aceh from the US at this moment might have meant a lot in US-Muslim public relations. Bin Laden and Zawahiri sniffed around Aceh in hopes of recruiting operatives there, being experts in fishing in troubled waters. Doesn’t the US want to outflank al-Qaeda? As it is, the president of the United States is invisible and on vacation (unlike several European heads of state), and could think of nothing better to do than announce a paltry pledge. As Harris and Wright rightly say, the rest of the world treated the US much better than this after September 11.
The Indonesian government itself has an opportunity to gain some good will in troubled Aceh, and appears to have taken a good first step by allowing international aid agencies into the area.
Already the speaker of the provincial parliament in Kerala, India, has been mobbed by angry fishermen. He only escaped by promising to deliver their grievances to the chief minister.
Tamil Nadu, another affected area, is important to the Congress government of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, with five cabinet ministers in his government. How he handles the crisis could be important, since Congress came back to power precisely because it was supported by villagers. As of Wednesday, the Indian government was denying that the tsunami would affect over-all economic growth, which was only about 6.6 percent this year, less than the 8 percent PM Singh has said is necessary for the country to develop properly.