New Year’s Eve – and it ain’t over yet

I was looking back over my files on Colombia for the past year, trying to put together an article about it. Just write some straight history. Colombia’s seen a mixed year. Brutal paramilitary violence, to be sure. Ongoing massacres, assassinations, neoliberal restructuring, an outbreak of yellow fever. But also the indigenous Minga for life, the quiet development of alternatives, the ongoing creation of the kind of movement that could change the country some time in the future. For Venezuela things have been better than bittersweet. There have been some defeats, some senseless deaths, but mostly it has been a period of growth – of movements, of the kinds of social innovations that save lives and strengthen dignity, and of democracy. The referendum victory is just one example. How about the rest of South America? Definitely mixed. Lula had a full year in power – and used it to occupy Haiti. Argentina is recovering economically because it virtually defaulted on its IMF debt, as the NYT even acknowledged lately. In Bolivia they had gotten rid of the old boss the year before but discovered – well, you know the line. In Ecuador I’m told they know they could overthrow the new boss any time they want, but they want to figure out what to do when they do.

Nothing good for Haiti in 2004. But Haitians have survived worse and they’ll survive this. The question is really for the rest of the world. How much longer do Haitians have to fight this white supremacy and have anything they create to show for it stolen from them while the world is totally indifferent? You could ask the same about Africa, with its conflicts in Sudan and Congo, with its thousands of preventable deaths from starvation and AIDS, all the while the vilest hypocrisy on display as westerners debate whether we should bomb one set of Africans to help another as the west keeps up the plunder and extortion (I am choosing my words carefully here, which is why you could be forgiven for feeling that I am understating my case).

With Asia, still reeling from the Tsunami that overshadows everything else, it shouldn’t be forgotten that 2004 is the year that the Hindu fundamentalists were thrown out in India, and not a moment too soon. That was a very powerful thing, even if they put a neoliberal at the helm and there’s corruption and so on.

West Asia is pretty unmixed and horrific. The onslaught against the Palestinians continues unabated, with Yasser Arafat’s death changing nothing. The slaughter of Iraqis proceeds without any end in sight. And yet – for defenceless people facing a superpower and its proxy, there are small victories. The Palestinians are still in Palestine after everything Israel has done, with the US backing it, to ethnically cleanse and murder them. The Iraqis retain the potential both to oust their occupiers and build something decent, if a meaningful anti-occupation movement could be built in the US.

Ah, yes, and North America. Canada had a chance to hand the whole thing over to the fascists and decided against it, only to discover what we’re always the last to know – you don’t ever get what you voted for. Usually you don’t even not get what you voted against. The United States would have had that problem had John Kerry won. But he didn’t, and Bush did, and that could be the worst thing that happened in 2004, and I realize that between the Tsunami, the Lancet study, and the near total lack of a difference between Kerry and Bush, that might be a ridiculous thing to claim. But I do feel it’s too early to tell. If Bush’s election was the low point for movements in the US, if we can learn things and start to do things that work better, then maybe something can be salvaged from this wreck of a year. Maybe one way of looking at it is that thanks to the courage of beleaguered people all over the world, there is still time to do so. We owe them for that. Things are bloody and bad. But it ain’t over yet.

Happy New Year. See you in 2005.

Canada and Iraq’s Oil (yes, Canada’s bidding for it)

Got this one via a well-informed Iraq commentator . Turns out that Canada’s OGI Group (an oil company based in Western Canada) has won a contract to ‘develop’ an Iraqi oil field (the Himrin oil field). It’s one of those upbeat business everything-is-rosy sorts of stories.

Continue reading “Canada and Iraq’s Oil (yes, Canada’s bidding for it)”

Aceh and the Tsunami

Aceh was hit hard by the Tsunamis and is also under Indonesian occupation. This could make a deadly situation still more catastrophic.

Here’s a media release.

Media Release

U.S. Groups Urge Indonesian Government to Put People over Politics

Humanitarian Catastrophe Adds to Human-Created Destruction in Aceh

Michael Beer, NI, 202-244-0951 (w), 703-875-9482 (h)
Karen Orenstein, ETAN, 202-544-6911 (w), 202-319-1711 (h),
Bama Athreya, ILRF, 703-328-1964 (cell)

December 30 — U.S.-based groups with a long record of experience in the region today called on the Indonesian government to not let politics
override the needs of people in tsunami-stricken Aceh. The groups include
the East Timor Action Network (ETAN), International Labor Rights Fund
(ILRF) and Nonviolence International (NI). Contact information for experts
on the region available for interview is listed at the end of this advisory.

“Delays by the Indonesian government in allowing international access to Aceh may have needlessly cost precious lives. The government’s apparent opening of Aceh must continue. The government must cut through its bureaucratic red tape so aid can get through as quickly as possible. International and Indonesian organizations must have unrestricted access to Aceh. International media must be free to report on conditions and relief efforts. Strict limits on internationals’ time in Aceh must be lifted,” said Michael Beer of NI.

“Politics must not be allowed to override the needs of the Acehnese people in this tragic time,” he added.

As many as 100,000 people may have been killed in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and North Sumatra as a result of an earthquake and tsunami that struck the region on December 26. The government initially kept the international community at bay as it apparently debated whether to open Aceh up to foreigners. The province had been almost entirely closed to any international presence due to military operations there. The Indonesian government’s response remains slow and uncoordinated.

The groups urged aid organizations and agencies to work as closely as possible with local civil society groups and to resist Indonesian government and military attempts to close non-governmental local groups out of the process.

“The high level of corruption in Indonesia, especially in Aceh, and the great distrust of Aceh’s central government make it crucial that aid groups be allowed to distribute urgently needed food, medical supplies, and other assistance outside of government channels, distributing aid directly and through local NGOs,” said Karen Orenstein of ETAN.

ETAN, ILRF, and NI further urged the government of Indonesia to allow Acehnese outside of Indonesia — many of whom fled political repression — to return to Aceh, if they so choose, to seek their relatives and loved ones and assist the relief effort. Their return should take place without burdensome visa restrictions and without repercussions.

Finally, the groups pointed out that this tragedy caused by natural disaster comes on top of an already devastating human-created tragedy. Since May 2003, more than 2000 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Aceh while the province was under marital law and then a civil emergency. During a previous period of martial law from 1989 to 1998 some 10,000 Acehnese perished. Despite the humanitarian catastrophe, there are still reports of ongoing military operations against Acehnese rebels.

“We are gravely concerned about reports of cease-fire violations by the Indonesian military, who are allegedly attacking Acehnese guerillas instead of focusing on the humanitarian disaster,” said Bama Athreya of ILRF.

“The world must not forget that the people of Aceh have suffered massive human rights violations due to years of Indonesian military repression and guerilla operations by the Free Aceh Movement. Until very recently, the Indonesian government and armed forces had virtually sealed Aceh from any foreign presence. The ceasefires declared by the Acehnese guerrillas and the Indonesian government this week are a crucial first step. All sides to the decades-long conflict in Aceh must redouble efforts to find a peaceful solution that strongly involves civil society,” continued Athreya.

Two U.S.-based grassroots relief funds have been established for the earthquake/tsunami disaster in Aceh: Nonviolence International-USA, and East Timor Action Network,

Funds raised by these groups will be sent directly to grassroots Acehnese humanitarian agencies and groups to save lives and relieve suffering. Both have the full backing of the expatriate Acehnese community in the U.S.

For interviews and other inquiries, media are advised to contact the following U.S.-based experts on Aceh:

Riva Syamsuddin, Acehnese activist and graduate of Syah Kuala University. Contact: 703-503-5272

Munawar Zainal, Acehnese student activist with the Acheh Center in Pennsylvania. Contact: 717-343-1598,

Allan Nairn, award-winning independent journalist who has spent much time in Aceh, Indonesia and East Timor in the last few years. Contact: 917-345-8020,

Michael Beer, director of Nonviolence International (NI). The NI office in Banda Aceh was destroyed and several staff members remain missing. Beer has been a frequent visitor to Aceh over the last 5 years. Contact: 202-244-0951, 703-875-9482,

Patrick McInnis, former staff in Aceh for Peace Brigades International and Oxfam. McInnis served with the Carter Center as an election observer in Aceh in October and is proficient in the local Acehnese language. Contact: 831-484-1318

ETAN advocates for democracy, justice and human rights for East Timor and Indonesia.

The ILRF is a Washington, DC-based human rights advocacy organization which has long been active on behalf of labor rights in developing countries and which has brought suit against Exxon Mobil under the Alien Tort Claims Act for aiding and abetting torture and crimes against humanity in Aceh.

NI-USA is located in Washington, DC. Our affiliate in Aceh is the Peace Education Program that teaches conflict resolution and nonviolence to Islamic clerics and youth. NI serves as a resource center for nonviolent movements around the world.

Stupid things to say about Tsunamis

I don’t know whether I am contributing to the problem by reproducing these things. My first reaction when large numbers of people die – as readers have probably figured out by now – is not to start political analysis. Lots of radicals never turn that button off and that’s fine. But it doesn’t take long, not very long at all, before I’m reminded that mass death isn’t enough to put things in perspective for the people who run our newspapers and make public statements. So here are the top three stupid things to say about Tsunamis for the day.

Continue reading “Stupid things to say about Tsunamis”

Costs, Human Tolls

Everytime I refresh my browser window, the death toll from the tsunami grows by a couple of thousand. The New York Times reports that at least a third of the dead are children. Even as we mourn, it is easy to detach ourselves from the reality of a number as large as 44,000. It is hard to imagine, and mourn individually, each life lost in such a short span of time. That this number could have been lower if detection systems had been in place for the impoverished countries affected by the tsunami, is shameful. As I mentioned in yesterday’s comments section of Justin’s blog on the tsunami, such warning systems have been made available for the U.S. Canada, Japan and even parts of South America. No such early warning systems existed for the countries and regions in the Indian Ocean, which sits atop a particularly volatile area of the sea floor.

It is a cruel irony that just about two months ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of the U.S. won great merit from the U.S. Department of Commerce for a tsunami detection system is had devised. The detection system, according to the scientists involved in the project, could be developed and implemented for a cost of about $10 million.

So as nations and organizations from around the world rush money to the areas ravaged by Sunday’s tsunami – I can’t help but think of the $10 million that was needed months ago to prevent possibly thousands of the deaths that occurred on Sunday.

While information about the costs and history behind the implementation of detection systems is proving hard to handily come by, there is plenty of information about the costs and benefits of this grave natural disaster on business and industry…

The year 2004 was an expensive one for the global property-casualty insurance industry. According to Swiss RE , the world’s largest insurer, before Sunday’s tsunami, natural and man-made catastrophes caused $105 billion in economic losses worldwide in 2004. So it is with disgust I report that the insurance industry breathed a sigh of relief and said that the massive loss of life and damage over the weekend won’t affect the industry too much. The countries affected by the tsunami were too poor to afford insurance, so the people and the governments of these countries will have to foot the bill for reconstruction and relief on their own. (Most of the aid being given now is rightly for humanitarian needs, not infrastructure). Yesterday, the share prices of insurers remained steady and in some cases inched up slightly as investors reacted to the news. Such is the industry, I know, but there is something very sadistic about it all.

And I don’t know what to make of this next bit of news. A small company named Taylor Devices saw its stock price skyrocket 172% on Monday in reaction to the tsunami. The company makes earthquake protection equipment and it says that everytime a natural disaster occurs, its stock price goes up as investors anticipate increased demand for its products. However, the 49-year-old company hasn’t seen steady increases in demand. In fact, revenue over the last several years has remained largely the same despite all the natural disasters that have occurred, meaning more governments, organizations or companies are not actually buying more earthquake protection equipment. Instead, speculative investors are just making a quick buck off of human loss and suffering.

But this is all unimportant, relatively speaking. What is important is that anyone who is in a position to do so, must help those affected. Many charities are accepting donations, and many immigrant organizations are accepting clothes to send overseas. As Justin said, any leads on how to help are much-appreciated.

The Tsunami continued and comments

My hope that the comments section of the blog would become as interesting as the things I post is coming to fruition. In case folks didn’t check the comments section of yesterday’s post, there were perceptive comments by frequent guest blogger C.P. Pandya, activist Troy Cochrane, and ZNet’s Cynthia Peters. Below is Pandya’s comment:

“Unfortunately even in the case of natural disasters, there are unnatural economic and political forces at work. In the case of the tsunami and earthquake that have ravaged southern and south eastern asia, perhaps some of the death could have been avoided. Had the international community chosen to spend some money, early-warning indicators could have been placed on the sea floor that could have flagged the approaching tsunami and residents could have fled to higher points on shore. The Pacific rim has such early-warning indicators, which are – as I understand it – seismic detectors that can measure an oncoming earthquake and the possibility of a subsequent tsunami within 3 to 15 minutes of it hitting shore. Such detectors were put in place by a UNESCO-related agency in the last-half of the last century – but only in the Pacific rim, an area that encompasses the western US and Canada among other regions. The decision to put such detectors on the Pacific rim was a matter of “efficient resource allocation” to put it crudely. The logic behind the decision was that 95% of the world’s earthquakes originate in the Pacific rim. Sounds logical, sure. BUT…one of the most volatile regions in terms of plate tectonics is the Indian ocean where the India plate is hitting the Burma plate. It was this collision of the two plates, long known to scientists and policy makers as a great danger, that caused yesterday’s destruction.”

Troy and Cynthia noted that Indonesia may be making the aid effort in Aceh difficult and pressure will be needed to ensure that this doesn’t happen. Cynthia posted the communique of the East Timor Action Network, which I am adding below.

In addition to this blog, I am running Zeynep Toufe’s ‘Under the Same Sun’ until tomorrow. I posted yesterday’s entry there as well, and got useful links in the comments section. (International Federation of Red Cross/Crescent Societies)

Content Banner

A perceptive reader in that blog noted the ongoing incident as an example of the power of the media to make people feel compassion:

“As I see stories about the East Indies quake/tsunamis and note the now-22,000+ death toll, I’m noticing how effectively (and appropriately) the media are encouraging compassion in viewers and I’m thinking, What if a commensurate amount of exposure were given and compassion kindled into far deadlier man-made atrocities, like the 1991 US attack on Iraq in which, if I remember correctly, some 200,000 people were killed and most of the infrastructure was destroyed, guaranteeing that deaths would continue en masse into the forseeable future? The way the media are giving attention to this natural disaster seem quite effective, and suggests to me how they could be covering the U.S. destruction of Iraq, pharmaceutical company-caused AIDS deaths in sub-Saharan Africa, etc.”

A very good point.

Urgent Alert
Call Your Representative Today to Sign Letter on U.S. Emergency Response to Earthquake and Tsunami;
Urge Unrestricted Access to Aceh for International Humanitarian Organizations and Media

As Indonesia and other South and Southeast Asian countries struggle with the effects of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that has already claimed over 20,000 lives – with the death toll expected to rise – please call your Representative in Congress and urge her/him to:

****sign the following Dear Colleague letter initiated by Congressman Crowley to Secretary of State Powell calling for immediate U.S. leadership and action in emergency aid relief. The deadline is Jan. 4. The contact in Mr. Crowley’s office is Gregg Sheiowitz.

***call Secretary Powell and urge him to press Indonesia to allow international NGOs and the media immediate, unrestricted access to Aceh.

Aceh, the region closest to the earthquake, has been almost entirely sealed from foreign presence since the beginning of marti allawinMay2003. There are rumors that the Indonesian government is now debating whether to allow foreign organizations access to Aceh. The U.S. government has offered assistance. Every second delayed contributes to needless death, sickness and suffering. This is clearly not the time for politics to supersede dire humanitarian needs.

Phone calls are the most effective way to contact your Representative. The Congressional switchboard number is 202-224-3121; ask for your Representative’s office. Then ask to speak with the foreign policy aide. If you don’t know who your Representative is, go to to find out. If you are not able to make a phone call, then fax. E-mails are a last option, but are generally less effective than phone calls and faxes.

Please call as soon as possible. For more information, contact Karen Orenstein,, 202-544-6911. Please let us know the results of your phone calls.

A copy of the Congressional Dear Colleague letter follows.

Support Humanitarian Aid for South and South East Asian Tsunami Victims

December 27, 2004

Dear Colleague:

As you know, yesterday South and South East Asia suffered the worst earthquake in the past 40 years. It is being reported that over 23,000 people have been killed and millions displaced from the tsunami caused by this quake. I urge you to join me in sending the below letter to Secretary Powell urging the administration to be the leader in the emergency aid relief effort.

The United States has a moral obligation to help those affected by this tragic natural disaster. If you would like to sign on or for more information please contact Gregg Sheiowitz in my office at or via phone at 5-3965. The deadline to sign will be close of business on January 4, 2005.


Joseph Crowley

Member of Congress

December XX, 2004

The Honorable Colin Powell
Secretary of State
U.S. Department of State
2201 C Street N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20520

Dear Secretary Powell,

We are deeply saddened and concerned by the loss of 23,000 lives from the worst earthquake in the past 40 years and the 4th strongest in a century. As a strong leader in the world, the United States must be at the forefront of dispensing emergency humanitarian aid to the scores of nations affected by this tragedy. We are pleased to see President Bush’s December 26, 2004 release regarding the Bay of Bengal earthquake stating, “The United States stands ready to offer all appropriate assistance to those nations most affected” but we must back these words up with immediate action.

As you know, the death toll is expected to rise with thousands more reported missing in eight countries after the tsunami ripped through coastal communities. We believe the relief effort must first be focused on ensuring the people affected by this massive tsunami have clean water and food due to the fact the flood waters contaminated the drinking water and food is scarce. Second, the humanitarian effort must also be focused on stopping disease before it spreads through the population who survived this horrible ordeal. While aid workers access the damage done by the tsunami, it is important for the United States to take the lead in dispensing aid, we must lead by example.

We also believe that to ensure this high loss of life does not occur again, we urge you to work with the South and South East Asian nations to assist them in setting up a network warning system for earthquakes in the Indian Ocean similar to the one along Pacific Rim nations in North America, Asia and South America. We also believe that better coordination is needed between the international tsunami warning system and all nations even where tsunamis have been rare like in the Indian Ocean. The United States Agency for International Development should work with all the countries in South and South East Asia to develop an early warning system to save lives from future tsunamis.

We look forward to your immediate action for those millions affected by this tragedy and thank you in advance for your attention to this matter.


Karen Orenstein
Washington Coordinator
East Timor Action Network: 13 Years for Self-determination and Justice
202-544-6911 (t/f);


It is hard to say something about something so terrible. It’s not really a moment for a political blog. If I was around there I would just try to find some way to join the aid effort. I have heard on the news that cash is the best way to help from far away. I don’t know what the best organizations are to give to – anyone with good suggestions please make them in the comments section.

And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time…

Sorry for returning to Christmas musings so soon, but I have been hearing that Live Aid/Band Aid song far too often recently. You know the one with George Michael, Boy George, Bono, etc., from the 1980s? Bono’s line in it is: “Well, tonight thank god it’s them, instead of you…”

I don’t know the whole story of this Band Aid effort but I know that it went on during the famine in Ethiopia. I also know that the singers were motivated by decent intentions, as people like Bono have been since.

And yet, there is something wrong with that song, isn’t there?

Continue reading “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time…”