Washed Away

Washed Away


The fishing Community of Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka, in the Wave of the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami

After the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, millions of people in different countries would have the world they knew changed forever. In its path, the tsunami killed more than 225,000 people, becoming one of the deadliest disasters in modern history, mainly in part due to the lack of a tsunami warning system in the Indian Ocean. The tsunami killed tourists and locals alike but brought the most significant implications to coastal and fishing communities. A New York Times article published a couple of months after the tsunami quotes one of the southern Thai community’s fishermen, Am Changkraichok, who said, “If you were meant to die, you died. People visiting here to see friends or foreigners here on holiday, all were here because their time had come to die.”1 While not all locals share his belief that “nature decides” when a person’s time has come, the fishermen of the villagers did share a common problem in the wake of the tsunami: “We have no way to make a living.” A UN report asking Australia for help stated, “They have lost their fishing boats, they have lost everything. In those areas, there is a risk of starvation.”2 The chief of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Fishery Technology Service reported that “The damage in the fisheries and aquaculture sectors is worse and more complex than expected.”3 Moreover, while the FAO worked to advise governments and provide aid to rehabilitate and replace fishing infrastructure, fishing boats, and fishing gear, other sources would argue that this was too little. 

In the devastation of the tsunami, Sri Lanka’s fisherman had lost their equipment and much of their remaining customer base. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation reported shortly after the tsunami that rumors had spread throughout the coastal towns that sea creatures were eating tsunami victims’ bodies and might spread disease.4 The health of fish, a primary dietary staple of the Sri Lankan people, was being questioned, leading to a precipitous fall in demand.

However, seafood safety turned out to be a minor problem for the fishermen of Sri Lanka and Thailand’s coastal communities. A Herald-Tribune article from March 2005 states, “the tsunami that cleared the shoreline like a giant bulldozer has presented developers with an undreamed-of opportunity, and they have moved quickly to seize it.”5 In essence, the tsunami had given big tourism the opportunity to take over prime beach real estate, a fight that had been raging in the fishing communities for years before the tsunami. Lamia Rodson from Phuket, Thailand, said that she had been battling the Hok Jong Send Company and the Far East Trading Construction Company on land tenure for seven years before the tsunami hit.6 She reported that a company representative went so far as threatening death to her and her husband unless they left their home. A bomb blast shortly followed this in front of their home. While Rodson herself had been in this legal battle for seven years, the dispute went back to the 1970s when the Hok Jeng Seng Company was given a mining concession to the land her family had lived on for decades. After the tsunami, Rodsan found a sign posted on her property, stating, “No Trespassing or Construction of any Sort.” 

Rodson’s story is not unique. In Sri Lanka and Thailand, the government used the tsunami to deed local ancestral lands public and resettle tsunami survivors to homes five kilometers inland where the fishermen couldn’t watch over their boats and fishing gear. Those who were proponents of tourism expansion in the name of rebuilding Thailand and Sri Lanka’s economy often declared it supported locals’ livelihood. However, the tourism boom after the tsunami coincided with a period of worsening inequality.7

In this paper, I focus on the coastal community of Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka,  predominantly a fishing community with a history of a small-town tourism sector that served primarily surfers. For a while, the tourism and fishing sectors co-existed in peace; hotels would even buy the fisherman’s catch. However, the tourism sector had dreams of expansion when a legal ceasefire in 2002 created peace in the area recovering from a Civil War that had ravaged the region since 1983.8 During this period of peace, after the ceasefire and before the tsunami, hotels began to complain about the smell of drying fish and fishing huts blocking the hotels’ views of the ocean. This is when tensions between the fishing and tourism sectors rose, and the question of land became an issue. In 2004, the tsunami’s wave hit and further inflamed the issue. In the end, the tourism sector won. The area experienced rapid growth in privatization and tourism. Given the confluence of these factors, it raises the question: Did the Sri Lankan War or the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami lead to the privatization of Sri Lanka and expansion of the tourism sector? Which event was a larger component in the creation of disaster capitalism?  

The dictionary definition of disaster capitalism is “the practice (by a government, regime, etc.) of taking advantage of a major disaster to adopt liberal economic policies that the population would be less likely to accept under normal circumstances.”9 One could argue that a tsunami and a Civil War can be categorized as a major disaster in this context. In an examination of the aftermath of the tsunami in Arugam Bay when contrasted to comparable communities in Thailand,I have concluded that while the Sri Lankan Civil War was a significant contributor, the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami ultimately paved the way for the privatization of Sri Lanka, expansion of the tourism sector, and eventually what is known as disaster capitalism. A case study of a fishing community in Sri Lanka supports my thesis, and comparison to a case study of a fishing community in Thailand, which experienced similar expansions of the private and tourism sector, suggests that it’s part of a broader pattern.

The Sri Lankan Civil War was a battle between the Sri Lankan Government, known as the Sinhalese and supported by the country’s Muslim communities, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, more commonly known as The Tamil Tigers. The war was an ethnic conflict between Sinhalese, primarily Buddhists and the island’s original inhabitants, and a minority group, the Tamil Tigers, who were mainly Indian and practiced Hinduism and were brought to the island as indentured laborers by the British government. The Tamil Tigers wanted to establish an independent Tamil state, Eelam, in northern and eastern Sri Lanka. This desire started with growing ethnic conflict and repressive anti-Tamil policies implemented by the Sinhalese government. However, in 2002, the Norweigian government pushed a ceasefire, which put the civil war on pause until 2003, when the Tamil Tigers declared they were in control of the country’s north and eastern areas. Subsequently, the Norwegians reported three hundred infractions of the ceasefire by the Sinhalese and three thousand by the Tamil Tigers.10 During tsunami recovery, tensions rose between the two groups, which ultimately led to the war’s full reemergence in late 2004.   

Before the fighting resumed in late 2004, there was peace. When the tsunami hit, people from all sides and religions came together to help their fellow neighbors. In Arugam Bay, a survivor recalls, “The Muslim side was running to the Tamil side to bury the dead and Tamil people were running to the Muslim side to eat and drink.”11 In essence, the tsunami did what the Norwegians could not; it made both sides see each other for what they were: other people struggling, just as they were. The Deccan Herald reported the tsunami “laid the foundation for both parties to come together and work towards closing the division between them and has “bridged, maybe temporarily, the sharp divide in the polity in the south.”12

In the first months after the tsunami, aid reached its intended recipients with support from NGOs and aid organizations. Survivors received food, water, medical support, and temporary homes. However, the dream-like foundation that The Deccan Herald speaks of wasn’t built to last; the foundation was forged in long-standing divisions. The disagreement began at a local level when the Sinhalese government distributed less aid to Tiger-held areas. Still, a larger demon loomed on the east coast; in places like Arugam Bay, the predominantly Tamil and Muslim communities faced the ultimate destroyer: disaster capitalism. Six months after the tsunami, the Sri Lankan government made it impossible for aid workers to do anything by refusing to open up land for construction, only allowing reconstruction plans approved by outside experts. This demon would not come to support the common folk of any party or religion—Sinhalese, Tamil, or Muslim. 

I posit that the destruction of the Sri Lankan civil war laid the groundwork for privatization. Nevertheless, in accordance with the disaster capitalism definition, it was the tsunami that allowed for “liberal economic policies that the population would be less likely to accept under normal circumstances.”13 In Sri Lanka, this meant the stealing of land, the privatization of water, electricity, and phone policies that had been opposed in the past. According to Herman Kumara, the head of Sri Lanka’s Fishery Solidarity Movement, in the wake of the tsunami, people were unable to fight the policies since “they are starving in the camps, and they are just thinking about how to survive the next day” and “when people recover, they will find out what had been decided, but by then the damage will already be done.”14 I will be using Naomi Klein’s work in her book The Shock Doctrine as an essential foundation for my analysis. 

Before the tsunami, the Sri Lankan government wanted to grow its economy, especially in the tourism sector. They could not do it on their dime since the country was in debt from weapons and wartime efforts. Thus, to modernize the country, they needed to open the economy to privatization and public-private partnerships, so they garnered support from USAID, World Bank, and Asian Development bank.15 This was formally brought to bear when the World Bank approved the “Regaining Sri Lanka” initiative. This “shock therapy program” stated that to accelerate economic growth, the country would be “placing a major share of the responsibility on the private sector for accelerating economic growth, increasing jobs and incomes and providing the resources needed for the reconstruction requirements that peace brings.”16 The plan was immediately put on hold after receiving widespread backlash from the Sinhalese people. The plan laid strong groundwork for privatizing the economy, but the tsunami ultimately caused the system to prevail. A Sri Lankan land activist stated, “just three weeks after the tsunami, they give us the same plan. It’s obvious that they had it all ready to go before.”17

As discussed, the Civil War had left the Sri Lankan government in debt due to war-related spending, and so when the tsunami hit, there was no money to help with rehabilitation and reconstruction efforts. The need for aid allowed the government to be more flexible, so President Chandrika Kumaratunga pushed through the “regaining Sri Lanka” plan, but this time it took the form of a task force in charge of “rebuilding the nation.”18 The difference is the initiative this time around was that it was made up of banking and industry executives instead of the Sri Lankan democratic parliament. An argument could be made that the Sinhalese government was eager to aid in the rise of privatization and expansion of tourism as a strategy to benefit the Sinhalese. Even if this argument has merit, it did not come to fruition at a local level. When the “regaining Sri Lanka”’ plan was introduced in 2002, all sides and religions widely opposed it. In no way did it benefit the local people; instead, it asked them to give up their land, change the labor laws which protected them, and pay more for goods and services.19 The Sinhalese people swiftly initiated militant strikes, began protesting in the streets, and eventually voted against the initiative. When the President pushed through the task force—five of the ten members had direct holdings in the beach tourism sector—that implemented the policies of “regaining Sri Lanka,” the Sinhalese people didn’t necessarily receive more benefit than their Tamil counterparts.20 Unlike before, they had no say in the matter; the Sri Lankans could not be protesting in the streets when the people were too busy searching them for dead loved ones. The only benefactors of the privatization of the economy and expansion of tourism were capitalist elites.

In Arugam Bay, local entrepreneurs of the tourism industry were often Sinhalese, and they had sites and businesses in the “buffer zone.” Like the fishing communities, local entrepreneurs lost their land to the ‘buffer zones’ despite occupying it for generations. Under the task forces’ command, the government leased their plots of land to the private sector; as such, these local entrepreneurs went from being owners of tourist establishments to working for them.21In a rare instance, when all religions, Buddist, Hindu, and Muslim, united together under an umbrella of grief and loss, the President and business executives came together to fulfill their wishes. According to Klein, “the enormous outpouring of generosity after the tsunami had held out the rare possibility of a genuine peace dividend,” but instead, Sri Lanka and the private sector had used this as an opportunity to impose “a cutthroat, combative economy model that made life harder for a majority of people at the very moment when what they needed most was reconciliation and an easing of tensions.”22  The decision to rid the beaches of locals and grow the private sector was not influenced by the Civil War’s ideologies, nor did the Civil War have a significant influence on its imposition. The tsunami paved the way for a bureaucratic win.

Still, one may assume that President Kumarantuga’s actions were made possible by the insecurity of a country recovering from a Civil War. However, across the ocean in Thailand, the increase of the tourism sector, privatization, and a case of disaster capitalism in the tsunami’s aftermath were uncannily similar. Coastal communities in Sri Lanka and Thailand had long been in a battle with the tourism sector when it came to prime beach real estate. The tourism sector had done everything to take the fishing people’s land that they had lived on for generations with efforts ranging from physical intimidation, the burning of homes, and even murder, but nothing had worked. That was until the tsunami hit. The Sri Lankan and Thailand government had declared a coastal ‘buffer zone’ of two hundred meters under the guise of “safety.” Essentially, fishermen could not rebuild homes along the shoreline and next to their boats regardless of their right to it. Frequently, there was nowhere else for fishermen and their families to go except to temporary camps inland, where most of them stayed indefinitely.23 Nevertheless, in the case of privatization and disaster capitalism, the tourist board could acquire rights to the land within the designated zone to build hotels, businesses, and even in one case, a floatplane pier and helicopter pad.24 A Sri Lankan fisherman stated the tsunami allowed for the government to do what it had always wanted: “clear the beach of the fishing people.”25 In Sri Lanka and Thailand, the non-consensual acquisition of people’s property was made possible by the implementation of “buffer zones” and insecure land tenure. 

The weaponization of insecure land tenure after the tsunami is a key reason that has led me to believe that the Civil War was less of a determinant in the tourism sector’s privatization. To understand this, one must understand the history of coastal communities on The Andaman Sea. Most fishers and their families had lived on their land for generations, so they often lacked the paperwork and documentation to prove their ownership of it. It had long been a respected right and act of tradition that the land belonged to them. Of course, big tourism institutions and other large companies had tried to gain a right to the acreage like they had in the case of Rodson. Until the tsunami and implementation of the “buffer zone,” their efforts were unsuccessful. Furthermore, many fishing families lost documentary evidence, such as tax or utility payments, that proved their right to the land affected by the tsunami.26 Additionally, unregistered landholders traditionally relied on witness testimony and natural land features to differentiate holdings. But, much of the land was destroyed, and many locals perished. Furthermore, issues arose if the property was held under the name of a deceased person. 

It is important to distinguish between Sri Lanka and Thailand here. In Sri Lanka, battles from the Civil War destroyed documents and people, while in Thailand, it was only the tsunami. But, in both cases, land disputes only became a big problem after the tsunami. This blaring distinction emphasizes how the Sri Lankan Civil War aided in the private sector’s ability to dispute land tenancy, but it was the tsunami that allowed for such land grabs. Researcher Andreana Reale and Professor John Hadmer of RMIT University’s Center for Risk and Community Safety said its natural hazards, like tsunamis, “exacerbate insecure land tenure, exposing other­ wise hidden vulnerabilities.”27

In both countries, land disputes were in the interest of privatization and the private tourism sector’s growth.  In Thailand, the documentation was held by and dealt with the “Thailand Land Titling Project,” controlled by the World Bank. While in Sri Lanka, the documentation was under the government’s jurisdiction, which was on a mission to “build back better” under the World Bank’s guiding hand. The World Bank was essentially driving these countries’ rebuilding, and “building back better” meant redeveloping in the way that favored them. When looking at Sri Lanka, it becomes clear how much the rise of disaster capitalism resulted in privatization that ultimately occurred due to the tsunami. 

After the tsunami, heartbreaking photos of destroyed homes, dead bodies strewn amidst rubble, and crying children were publicized for the entire world to see. In response, people from around the world wanted to help in any way they could, and that often, this took the form of aid. However, in Sri Lanka and Thailand alike, most of the aid was not given to the people but to the rebuilding of the tourism industry.28 The word “rebuild” is subjective, as what occurred in Sri Lanka was the reinvention and expansion of local tourism to “attract a wider clientele” and “encourage longer stays”; the reconstruction of a boutique surfer destination into a luxury destination meant the “build back better” ideal reigned supreme. In one instance, a Jeep Safari operator was given a fleet of bicycles and camping equipment to take guests on bicycle camping tours.29 Even more egregious, another group of Safari operators was given rickshaws to replace their destroyed Jeeps.30 In the plan to use a “unique opportunity” to turn a “great tragedy” into a “world-class tourism destination,” aid rarely made its way to the people for whom it was intended.  It was engineered, so even local entrepreneurs who relied on tourism as their source of income could not restart their businesses. Those who ended up owning hotels and different facets of the tourism industry were big businesses and foreign entrepreneurs. One thing remains clear, what the Sri Lanka Transport Board called a “great tragedy” is what allowed for the “unique opportunity” of disaster capitalism. In essence, the destruction, death, and publicity of the tsunami allowed for aid and reevaluation of business. Once again proving, the tsunami allowed for the rapid rise of the private and tourism sectors in Sri Lanka and Thailand.

An idea that deserves scrutiny posits that the reinvention and expansion of the tourism sector were made possible in Sri Lanka by the ceasefire of 2002 rather than the tsunami. Of course, suicide bombings and bloody battles did not portend a relaxing vacation destination. Many overseas tourists fear going anywhere during a Civil War. Before 2002, a majority of Arguham Bay’s tourists were surfers eager to experience an area known for its fantastic surfing. Could the news of a ceasefire make Sri Lanka tourism more appealing to private companies marketing to a broader clientele? After all, Sri Lanka had seen increased tourist rates during lulls of fighting and previous ceasefires.31 However, Linda K. Richter, in a study published before the ceasefire, found “those in the public and private sectors ignored the political realities in Sri Lanka” for a long time. In 1978 through 1984, a plan titled the “Six-Year Tourism Plan” was implemented after the private sector got involved in Sri Lankan tourism. The Six-Year Plan wanted to grow the tourism sector in Sri Lanka despite the war. The plan worked, and tourism increased more than 21 percent annually from 1970 to 1980. The plan’s success required executives to hire “tourism planners” charged with controlling the industry’s rampant growth by “modest measures” to negate the prospect of tourist destinations being the subject of political violence. 32 However, the inevitable came to fruition: tourism became a political casualty of the war, at significant cost to the tourism industry. When it came to tourism, private sectors had always seen the opportunity to privatize regardless of the war. After all, if the ceasefire was the reason for privatization and the rise of the tourism sector, why didn’t rebuilding start in 2002? 

The more prominent issue was not a matter if one side benefited from privatization but which side got more aid. The primarily Tamil fishing communities had received less aid, which raised the question of whether this was due to ideologies. However, even in Thailand, aid was often unevenly distributed due to social, religious, and indigenous identities.33 There was no strategy in its execution when the primary receiver of aid was the private sector. An engineering giant CHM2 was given forty-eight million dollars to work on three deep-water harbors for the industrial fishing fleet. In comparison, small-scale fishers only got 1 million dollars to upgrade ‘temporary’ living shelters while the beach was under reconstruction.34 

In Sri Lanka, the privatization and expansion of the tourism sector were primarily caused by the tsunami. The government and national capitalist elites used the facets that come with a Civil War to push their agendas. But in many ways, the Civil War prevented Sri Lanka from being privatized sooner. Had the tsunami not occurred, the privatization of the country may have been less drastic and instantaneous. This rapid growth is a consequence of the tsunami’s disaster capitalism. The use of disaster capitalism in the wake of the tsunami is not unique to Sri Lanka. We can understand this when looking at the fishing communities of Sri Lanka and Thailand located on the Andaman Sea. To go even further, similar cases of expansion in the private sector and tourism industry occurred in Indonesia, Maldives, and India after the tsunami.35 Klein states, “the same patterns repeat everywhere.” In summary, every country mandated “buffer zones” that made exceptions for hotels and commercial interests. Simultaneously, the residents could not rebuild on their land and had to live in temporary, sometimes militarized, camps. “Entire ways of life were being extinguished.”36 This was the cumulative effect of disaster capitalism. 

The survivors in Thailand explained, “To these groups of businessmen-politicians, the tsunami was the answer to their prayers, since it literally wiped these coastal areas clean of the communities which had previously stood in the way of their plans for resorts, hotels, casinos and shrimp farms. To them, all these coastal areas are now open land!”37 As long as the infrastructure of an existing society is intact, it is difficult for powerful forces to oppress them. The moment you remove the physical infrastructure, you create a vacuum of power into which vulture capitalism can swoop. The civil war riddled the local people’s homes with bullets, but the tsunami washed away their world. 

  1. Seth Mydans, “The Tsunami’s Horror Haunts a Thai Fishing Village,” The New York Times, February 14, 2005.
  2. Natasha Bita, “Impacts of the Tsunami on Fisheries, Aquaculture and  Coastal Livelihoods,” NACA/FAO/SEAFDEC/BOBP-IGO, January 7, 2005.
  3. Fishermen Suffered Huge Material Toll from Tsunami, UN Figures Show,” UN News, January 13 2005.
  4. Bista,  “Impacts of the Tsunami on Fisheries, Aquaculture and  Coastal Livelihoods.
  5. quoted in Naomi Klein, “Blanking the Beach,” The Shock Doctrine (Random House of Canada, 2007), 385.
  6. Human Rights Center of the University of California, Berkeley, October 2005.
  7. Donyapreuth Krairit Nittaya Wongtada, “Case Study : Survival of a Market Leader In a Regional Integration of Emerging Economies: A Case Study of The Tourism Industry In Thailand,” Journal of the International Academy for Case Studies (Allied Business Academies, September 1, 2017.
  8. “Agreement on a Ceasefire between the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam,” Agreement on a Ceasefire between the Government of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam § (2002), pp. 1-5.
  9. Disaster Capitalism,” Dictionary.com, accessed December 17, 2020.
  10. Kallie Szczepanski, “History of the Sri Lankan Civil War,” ThoughtCo, Updated July 8, 2019.
  11. Klein, “Blanking the Beach,” 390.
  12. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, “Sri Lanka: The Impact of the 26 December 2004 Tsunami on Human Rights Conditions in Sri Lanka,” Refworld, accessed December 17, 2020, https://www.refworld.org/docid/485ba87e28.html.
  13. Disaster Capitalism,” Dictionary.com.
  14. Klein, “Blanking the Beach,” 395.
  15. Klein, “Blanking the Beach,” 385.
  16. Regaining Sri Lanka: Vision and Strategy for Accelerated Development (Colombo: Govt. of Sri Lanka, 2003).
  17. quoted in Klein, “Blanking the Beach,” 397.
  18. “Sri Lanka 2005 Post-Tsunami Recovery Program Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment,” Sri Lanka 2005 Post-Tsunami Recovery Program Preliminary Damage and Needs Assessment § (2005).
  19. Klein, “Blanking the Beach,” 393.
  20. Klein, “Blanking the Beach.”
  21. Lyn Robinson and Jim K. Jarvie, “Post-Disaster Community Tourism Recovery: the Tsunami and Arugam Bay, Sri Lanka,” Disasters 32, no. 4 (2008): 631-645.
  22. Klein, “Blanking the Beach, .
  23. Klein, “Blanking the Beach.”
  24. Klein, “Blanking the Beach,” 388.
  25. Klein, “Blanking the Beach,” 388.
  26. Andreana Reale and John Handmer, “Land Tenure, Disasters, and Vulnerability,” Disasters 35, no. 1 (August 23, 2010).
  27. Klein, The Shock Doctrine, 1.
  28. Robinson and Jarvie, “Post-Disaster Community Tourism Recovery.”
  29. Robinson and Jarvie, “Post-Disaster Community Tourism Recovery.”
  30. Robinson and Jarvie, “Post-Disaster Community Tourism Recovery.”
  31. Linda Richter, “After Political Turmoil: The Lessons of Rebuilding Tourism in Three Asian Countries,” Journal of Travel Research 38, no. 1 (1999): 41-45.
  32. Richter, “After Political Turmoil.”
  33. Richter, “After Political Turmoil.”
  34. Klein, “Blanking the Beach,” 398.
  35. “After the Tsunami: Human Rights of Vulnerable Populations,” Human Rights Center of the University of California, Berkeley, October 2005.
  36. Klein, “Blanking the Beach,” 398.
  37. ”Statement by Thailand Tsunami Survivors and Supporters Group, February 2005,” Part 7, Resources: Chapter 19: Blanking the Beach Resources, The Shock Doctrine Website.
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