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Last Updated: Monday, 3 January, 2005, 13:38 GMT
Earthquakes shake up governments
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The effects of earthquakes and other natural disasters extend into politics and the Asian tsunami will be no exception.

The view of a village near Meulaboh, Aceh province, from a US helicopter carrying aid
How countries respond to disasters can influence their world image

History teaches that disasters can make or break governments and shift international alliances.

The slow response of the Pakistani government to the catastrophic cyclone in East Pakistan in 1970 - which led to deaths estimated at between 300,000 and 500,000 - helped precipitate independence the following year in what is now Bangladesh.

In 1972, an earthquake struck the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, levelling most buildings and killing 6,000 people.

The failings of the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza and the siphoning off of aid to his cronies helped to destabilise his regime which eventually fell to the Sandinistas in 1979.

The earthquake in Turkey in 1999 led to a significant rapprochement between Turkey and Greece because of a rapid Greek response. The Turkish military on the other hand was slow to move.

This hastened the decline of the military's influence and helped the liberalisation of the country in anticipation of European Union membership.

US diplomacy

In the current disaster, some effects are already emerging.

The perception of the United States in the world has been changed for the better, with the rapid despatch of a US aircraft carrier to ferry help by helicopter to the survivors in Aceh.

Mr Powell himself referred to the prospect of the United States being seen to reach out to the Muslim world

This shift of view itself represents something of a turnaround from the initial judgment that US President George Bush - by stating that four countries, the US, Japan, India and Australia, would take the lead - was undermining the position of the United Nations.

It was US Secretary of State Colin Powell who managed to heal the potential rift with the UN. Very rapidly the amount of US aid was increased from $35m to $350m.

The UN itself is now praising America's role, with its emergency co-ordinator describing the helicopters as "worth their weight in gold".

Mr Powell himself referred to the prospect of the United States being seen to reach out to the Muslim world. Indonesia after all is the most populous Muslim country.

Mr Powell is apparently aware of the opportunities both for US foreign policy and perhaps for himself to make a positive impact before he leaves office.

The standing of donor governments among their own people is also often affected.

This time, the Prime Minister of the UK Tony Blair has, rightly or wrongly, been criticised for staying on holiday in Egypt rather than returning home to assume personal command or going to the disaster region to see for himself.

Sri Lankan co-operation

The tsunami struck in two countries where there have been major rebellions against central government - Sri Lanka and Indonesia. It is too early to assess its effects, but there will be some.

In Sri Lanka, the government and the Tamil Tigers have to an extent co-operated in the provision of relief, but a leading Tamil Tiger spokesman has indicated the government has not done enough to gain the Tamils' trust.

Tamil Tigers cadres don rubber gloves for relief work in Sri Lanka
Tamil Tigers do some relief work in Sri Lanka
The spokesman, SP Thamilshelvan, told the BBC's Frances Harrison that the Tamil people feared the government were just playing a game to attract international aid, but planned to cheat them once again.

In particular, there were concerns, he said, that the Sri Lankan government had announced a plan for rehabilitation, but had not discussed it with the rebels.

For its part, the Sri Lankan government dismissed these complaints and said that full cooperation had been offered.

Peace talks between the two sides had stalled before the disaster, though there has not been large-scale fighting recently.

It sounds at the moment as if the talks will not be unlocked by the opportunities afforded by the disaster. On the contrary, suspicions could be deepened, making a political solution even more difficult.

Frances Harrison says that if rehabilitation money is spent fairly in both government- and Tamil Tiger-controlled areas, that would have a beneficial effect, but whether it will be, she adds, remains to be seen.

Aceh divisions

In the Indonesian province of Aceh, a lot might also depend on how the local people view the government's relief effort.

Lines form for emergency food in Aceh
Province on the north-western tip of Sumatra
Higher percentage of Muslims than other parts of Indonesia
Gam rebels have fought decades-long separatist campaign
Year-long military crackdown beginning in May 2003 weakened Gam, but failed to capture senior members

The Aceh rebellion began in 1976, resurfaced in 1989 and came back strongly in 1999.

It has its origins partly in tribal differences between the peoples of Sumatra and Java, where the central government is based, but also in what the people of Aceh feel is the exploitation of their natural resources - oil and gas especially.

If the independence movement GAM (Gerakan Aceh Merdeka or Aceh Freedom Movement) assesses in due course that the Indonesian government has failed in its response to the tsunami, it could spur further armed opposition, though the effect of the disaster on GAM's own ability to fight is not yet clear.


For those with a historical perspective, it is worth noting what author Simon Winchester says about the aftermath of the eruption of Krakatoa betwen Sumatra and Java in 1883.

In his book "Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded", he traces a rebellion against the Dutch in 1888 to discontent following the deaths of 40,000 people in the explosion and tsunami which followed.

He notes the growth of militant Islam at the time and calls the rebellion a "way-station" on the road to eventual Indonesian independence.


Sometimes, the political or international effects can be short-lived in the wake of disasters.

When the ancient Iranian city of Bam was destroyed by an earthquake in December 2003, the United States offered help and it was thought that this might herald a calmer relationship between two old antagonists.

It has not worked out like that. Issues of real politik such as the future of Iran's nuclear programme have taken precedence.

Some things do not change.

See the devastation in a village in Indonesia


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