Talk about the weather

December 26 2014, Boxing Day, was the tenth anniversary of the Asian Tsunami that devastated the east coast of Lanka taking the lives of almost 400 000 people. I was hoping to visit a contact who works for an NGO operating in the eastern provinces, however heavy rains and flooding have blocked roads and rail access. Once again thousands of people have abandoned their homes to seek emergency shelter. Although it is monsoon season, it seems recent years have received exceptionally heavy rain and a lack of adequate infrastructure has cast the east coast of the island as a region prone to disaster. A public appeal sent out by the NGO reads:

Sadly this appeal is almost starting to have the same repetitiveness of an annual Christmas letter. In a few days time people and organizations in the Batticaloa District along with others along the coast are planning to gather together to remember the 10th anniversary of the devastating Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. However, much of this district is now, once again, as in 2011 and 2012 under water with wide spread flooding.

Instead of a time of celebration too many of our fellow residents are huddled together to keep dry and safe from rising waters and heavy rains. Reservoirs that gather water from the central hills have been opened to release pressure on the bunds and this has added to the flooding in the district.

At the time of writing 36 people had died due to floods affecting the Eastern, Central and Northern provinces of the country, with estimates putting over 800 000 displaced over the new year. In Batticaloa, around 29,800 have been evacuated to 112 relief camps and at least 4,122 homes have been destroyed.

Photo: Darshan Ambalavar

As the presidential election looms, one wonders how this inclement weather will affect the political climate and influence the mood of the electorate. Will these tallies of death and the displaced translate as votes? The date for the election to be held two years before term on January 8 was chosen by the incumbent president Mahinda Rajapaksa based on astrological calculations. It seems the president’s astrologer, Sumanadasa Abeygunawardena, would have us believe the current president is a man destined to be as close as the republic comes to having a king.

Mahinda Rajapaksa gained immense popularity amongst the Sinhala majority following his defeat of the Tamil Tigers in 2009, achieving a massive victory in the polls soon after. Whilst international criticism and evidence of probable war crimes has since surfaced and prompted a UN probe, such claims have been dismissed by the president as neocolonial interference from external parties, most likely fuelled by Tamil interests, to denigrate the post-war state. However the consolidation of power amongst the president’s family and his heavy-handed dealings of his critics and opponents has led to significant disillusionment amongst many Lankans about the ‘Rajapaksa regime’. In the past month a collusion of parties put forth a common candidate who has emerged as a significant opposition. Maithripala Sirisena defected from the president’s ruling Sri Lanka Freedom Party in November to front a mandate to reform the presidential system and install a British-style parliamentary system within one hundred days. The three-wheeler driver who ferried me across Colombo this morning offered his opinion that amongst his clientele the common candidate is now the popular choice.

I want to pick up one thread of critique levelled at the Rajapaksa government, that of the high death toll and of civilian deaths in the final push to end the civil war in 2009, as an issue that initially piqued my interest in Tamil cultural studies. Whilst I am not denying the relief that many feel in the period of peace that has ensued, I want to consider how certain deaths are considered permissible — as the price of peace. To do so I will discuss an essay Tortorous dialogues (2010) by cultural theorist Suvendrini Perera that concerns the ‘enframing’ and reception of the 2004 Asian Tsunami and the production of dispensable lives during the time of ceasefire. By considering the connections between natural disaster, war, death and development we might understand how these dispensable ‘waste lives’ may yet have political consequences.

Photo: Darshan Ambalavanar

Photo: Darshan Ambalavanar

Perera follows Alain Corbin’s essay The lure of the sea (1994), concerned with the viewing of 18th century shipwrecks from the coast, to in turn consider the Tsunami as a more recent ‘theatre of coastal catastrophe’ (Perera 2010, p. 32) after a global audience witnessed the sublime ‘anger of the elements’. She focuses on the term ‘enframing’ as a Heideggerian concept to describe a process by which ‘natural’ disasters are represented, turned into pictures, domesticated and by extension mastered by its viewers. Perera argues that these techniques of enframing do not simply serve to make the incomprehensible intelligible, but also reveal how our sensitivities as viewers are constructed. Our senses are not passive mediators between the event and its reception but are loaded, sculpted by experience, and implicate us as viewers in the co-production of suffering. Trauma and suffering can then be understood as a currency, ‘a medium that enables dialogue and exchange’ (Perera 2010, p. 33) as it is carried and received across the globe with uneven meanings and consequences. In framing her thesis Perera asks:

What are the geopolitics of the tsunami as a globalized trauma-event? Or, more precisely, how does the biopolitics of trauma, as a set of institutionalized practices for managing and ordering the life and health of populations, play out across the necropolitical terrain of global inequality and in relation to those it locates as bare life? (Perera 2010, p. 33)

Whilst the earthquake in the Indian Ocean and the tsunami that came in its wake can be understood as being ungovernable, for the people of Batticaloa with whom Perera shapes her thoughts, its effects intermingle with the terror of the civil war. Perera recalls conversations with locals who describe the initial selfless reactions to the disaster that occurred during an uneasy ceasefire. Before the foreign aid arrived they speak of Sinhala soldiers who risked and in some instances lost their lives trying to save Muslim and Tamil children from the waves and households with not enough food for their own who found food for those made destitute (Perera 2010, p. 35). However all of this changed with the return of the state apparatus, the arrival of the NGOs and the torrents of aid money that flowed in their wake. In the competition to win the favour of foreign aid, locals became gripped by a feverish ‘aid-trauma’. In the aftermath of the wave divisions between Sinhala, Tamil and Muslim communities were further entrenched rather than overcome.

Pondering the connection between funds for humanitarian aid and the resumption of the war in 2007, Perera re-poses the suspicions of a American-Lankan volunteer Nimmi Gowrinathan of unregulated funds being funnelled into the State’s war chest. In a blogpost from March 2005 Gowrinathan writes:

Large sums of money flow freely into post-tsunami Sri Lanka. These same funds which are the life blood of relief, reconstruction, and rehabilitation efforts are accessed to sustain arms build ups, military development, and continued violence. (Gowrinathan cited in Perera 2010, p. 35 and also accessible here.)

Perera goes on to tease apart the distinction between modes of suffering; those whose trauma maybe attributable to forces of nature — ‘acts of God’— and those who are victims of war and other human actions. In effect, this categorization reveals whose suffering is deemed political and whose is not. That is, the deaths no-one can be held accountable for, or to be more precise, whose deaths ‘do not count’ (Perera 2010, p. 36). In doing so Perera uncovers a perverse logic by which innocent victims of unaccountable forces are revealed as being dispensable. When this logic is applied to those who are regarded as not having entered the realm of the political, that is those that are closer to or undifferentiated from ‘nature’, we are made aware of the Enlightment logic that justified the genocides of European colonial expansions and the ‘natural’ progress of the superior ‘races’ and their ideologies. So it follows that both victims of colonial war and victims of the Tsunami may not have lived out the terms of their natural lives, yet they nevertheless died of ‘natural causes’. As this categorization reveals a split between the terms ‘nature’ and ‘the political’, one can deduce that in order for these deaths to be accounted for, to be politicised, this categorical split must first be overcome.

Photo: Darshan Ambalavanar

Photo: Darshan Ambalavanar

Raising issue with how modes of enframing serve to geopoliticise trauma, Perera draws on the work of historian Gregory Bankoff who is critical of a generalising and essentialising discourses active in the production of disasters.Bankoff argues such discourses labels regions as being poverty-stricken, disease-ridden or disaster-prone and their inhabitants of being effectively inferior (p. 37). By locating regions as being disaster prone, Perera identifies another differential between those who suffer in these regions and those who perceive this trauma from a distance — as suffering occurring somewhere else — marking a line between ‘us’ and ‘them’. It is a difference and a distance that is commensurate to those that have mastered nature from their positions of spectatorship and those who cannot. The inhabitants of these dangerous geographies are thus both the subjects and victims of technologies of enframing. These asymmetrical arrangements of trauma and spectatorship locate dispensable populations and ‘bare life’ across familiar colonial terrains:

The bare life located in dangerous geographies, lacking the ability to ‘sublimate’ their environment, are condemned to an eternal victimhood from which only superior powers of reason, and all the scientific, medical and material power that entails, can attempt to rescue them. At work here, then, are all the familiar violently unequal power relations of colonial power that, on the one hand enable, sustain and reproduce the possibility for strategic providential interventions, rescue missions, and acts of benevolence, while on the other demarcating disposable lives situated within necropolitical domains; marked with the unredeemable imprimatur of bare life. These lives can be either killed with impunity or be abandoned to innumerable forms of letting die. (Perera 2010, p.38)

In her response to the 2004 Tsunami the author and activist Rebecca Solnit likens the images of the aftermath of the wave to the consequences of war :

Photographs are being taken, have been taken, of many of the dead, so that the families can identify them on bulletin boards and websites. Never has photography been more personal or more public. The photographs serve, as photography always does, to make us feel present, to make visible, imaginable what has happened. They serve empathy as much as understanding (Solnit 2005).

In enframing the disaster of the Tsunami from the perspective of New York Solnit extends a torturous dialogue between these news images and the less visible or invisible images of the war in Iraq. She is particularly sensitive to images yet to be seen from the battle for the city of Fallejuh, one of the bloodiest battles of the Iraq war which was fought over December 2004:

You can look at the superabundant photographs of those scenes of devastation, those bodies contorted with grief and loss, and extrapolate from them that the assault on Fallujah must have left orphans with the same blank, stunned looks on their faces, mothers without children contorted with the same unbearable grief, must have shattered homes, families, lives, hopes with the same kind of physical force. To realize this is to realize how much imagery — or its lack — shapes our response to both disasters (Solnit 2005).

Solnit goes on to draw connections between the devastation of war and natural disaster stating:

You can understand the harnessing of the forces of nature — aerodynamics, chemistry, atomic fission — as means of making war more like natural disaster in its indifference, its scale, its ruination. But never natural (Solnit 2005).

Whilst war is human-formed its effects and its indifference to ‘collateral damage’ or those deemed dispensable are similar. In Batticaloa when Perera’s interlocutors discuss their experiences, the wave and the war intermingle, ‘one terror shading into another’ (Perera 2010, p. 34). Perera, following an argument put forth by Naomi Klein in her book The Shock Doctrine (2007), comes to regard the aspects of ‘shock and awe’, a strategy employed in the war in Iraq, that is common to the experiences of the Tsunami. Klein’s thesis concerns fundamentalist forms of capitalism, represented by the Chicago school of economics, that moves into scenes of disaster taking advantage of trauma to advance (Klein cited in Perera, 2010). At Arugam Bay, not far from Batticaloa, Klein describes the ‘storm of development’ that followed the Tsunami observing that up and down the coast ‘once the rubble was cleared away, what was left was. . . paradise’ (Klein 2007, p. 387).

Photo: Darshan Ambalavanar

Photo: Darshan Ambalavanar

Klein reports on the displacement of subsistence fishing families who have resisted the pressure of an encroaching tourism industry, and in particular that of elite resorts and spas catering to an exclusive and powerful billionaire ‘plutonomy set’ ( Klein 2007, p. 393). In the aftermath of the Tsunami the people who have for generations dwelled on the beach have been moved into buffer zones deeper inland, in amongst the refugee camps of those displaced by the war. Having had their homes, boats and nets destroyed by the wave they have been left destitute with no means to survive and face desperately uncertain futures. They reel in shock and awe — effectively terrorised — vulnerable and incapable of resistance. Klein observes that this is the moment when predatory capitalism moves in, just ‘as pillage follows war’ (Klein 2007, p. 395).

After the waves have cleared the beaches of resistance the economic restructuring of the region follows. Privatisation laws are pushed through, defying years of citizens’ resistance, to herald a new era of tourist-led economic prosperity. Klein continues:

In the countries where the tsunami hit, the idea of open land is weighted with this ugly historical resonance, evoking stolen wealth and violent attempts to ‘civilize’ the natives. Nijam, a fisherman I met on the beach in Arugam Bay, saw no real difference. ‘The government thinks our nets and our fish are ugly and messy, that’s why they want us off the beach. In order to satisfy foreigners, they are treating their own people as if they are uncivilized.’ (Klein 2007, p. 402)

The production of dispensable populations comes into sharp relief in the restructuring and development that occurs after environmental disaster, a pattern that Klein labels ‘disaster capitalism.’ Klein observes that those whose death and suffering no-one can be accountable are regarded as the uncivilised who can simultaneously be over-ridden and discarded by the ‘natural’ march of progress and globalisation.

In any national political system there are those that are marginalised and who make explicit the sovereign violence of the state. The asymmetrical arrangements of global power and predatory capitalism, that are now cast into the context of planetary climate change, extrapolate a necropolitical order. Those located in the regions most susceptible to environmental catastrophe are are consigned to bare the brunt of these war-like consequences. The dispensable lives of the global poor locate themselves along a history that the political scientist Achille Mbembe describes as the production of ‘the human’ as waste (Mbembe 2011).

Solnit draws her conclusions from Susan Sontag whose death came two days after the Tsunami and is also the subject of her text. Sontag claims that with the advance of communications technology and the media, being ‘a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience’ (cited in Solnit 2005). Whilst Sontag believed traumatic images should rightly shock and outrage, she acknowledges the limited capacity of images to arouse, describing compassion as an ‘unstable emotion’. Solnit concurs and urges that such emotions be acted upon immediately before one’s senses become dulled by the flood of harrowing images (Solnit 2005) and as techniques of enframing allow the privileged spectator to master disaster.

As Perera makes clear, the waves of compassion that followed the Tsunami, and that are echoed in the dialogues concerned with the current floods, are never neutral or autonomous. Rather, the distribution and administration of aid is acutely politicised. On the cusp of a new year the death toll notches up across Lanka and the displaced once again seek refuge, demarking spaces of trauma and spectatorship. Could the current foul weather precipitate a storm of criticism, compassion and electoral unease? As memories of war and wave overlap and intermingle with current experiences of trauma, we might concede that acts of ‘nature’, whilst ungovernable, can still perform as effective political actors. As environmental and human tragedy unfold, will dispensable lives be called into account in the upcoming polls?

Photo: Darshan Ambalavanar

Photo: Darshan Ambalavanar

Ambalavanar, Darshan, 2014. Personal correspondence.

Banyan, 2014. ‘A fault in his stars?’ The Economist, 29 November.

Gowrinathan, Nimmi, 2005. ‘Refugee babies: the lasting effects of tsunami aid in Sri Lanka.’ UCLA Asia Institute [blog].

Klein, Naomi, 2007. The Shock Doctrine: the rise of disaster capitlaism. Metropolitan books, New York.

Mbembe, Achille, 2011 ‘Democracy as a community life.’ The Salon: Johannesburg workshop in theory and criticism, vol. 4.

Perera, Melani Manel, 2014.‘With no respite in sight, more than a million people still affected by Sri Lanka rains.’, 30 December.

Perera, Suvendrini, 2010. ‘Torturous dialogues: geographies of trauma and spaces of exception’, Continuum, vol. 24 iss. 1, pp. 31–45.

Solnit, Rebecca, 2005. ‘Sontag and Tsunami.’, 3 January.


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