The Washington Diplomat / February 2005
By Larry Luxner
At 7:48 p.m. local time on Dec. 25 — just as a killer tsunami generated by a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck the western edge of his country — Indonesian Ambassador Soemadi D.M. Brotodiningrat was celebrating Christmas with 500 fellow Indonesians at the Doubletree Hotel in Tysons Corner, Va.
India's ambassador, Ronen Sen, was at the National Cathedral, attending midnight Mass with his wife. Sri Lanka's top diplomat here, Devinda R. Subasinghe, didn't find out about the tsunami until 3:30 the following morning, when he was awakened by an urgent phone call by his duty officer.
Thai Ambassador Kasit Piromya heard the bad news on CNN, while enjoying his last day of vacation in Buenos Aires.
"My first reaction was that we didn't know the extent of the damage, but I had a gut feeling it would be much worse," Piromya recalled. "My anticipation was quite correct."
Within days, the full extent of the tragedy would emerge — and the four men would face the biggest challenge of their professional lives.
Last month, Brotodiningrat, Subasinghe and Piromya gathered at the Willard Inter-Continental Hotel in an exclusive interview arranged by the Washington Diplomat, even as bodies were still being discovered in the aftermath of the Indian Ocean tsunami, which claimed over 175,000 lives in a dozen countries.
Clearly, the brunt of the disaster was borne by Indonesia, where over 110,000 deaths were reported just on the island of Sumatra. In Sri Lanka, the death toll surpassed 40,000, while the tsunami killed nearly 16,000 people in India and at least 5,000 in Thailand. Much smaller numbers of deaths were reported in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Burma, the Seychelles and the Maldives, as well as three East African countries: Somalia, Kenya and Tanzania.
"I am originally from a province far from the affected area, but if 110,000 of your countrymen suddenly die, of course it will affect your emotions," said Brotodiningrat. "I've never experienced anything like this in my life."
Brotodiningrat estimated that rehabilitation and reconstruction of Sumatra's devastated western coast will carry a price tag of around $1.3 billion. The psychological costs are incalculable.
"The people are still in a state of shock, but many of them will prefer to come back once everything is normal again, and we will help them to rebuild."
He said at least two employees of the Indonesian Embassy fronting Massachusetts Avenue lost families and relatives in the disaster, "adding to the collective emotions in our embassy."
In the wake of the disaster, governments around the world have pledged close to $4 billion in assistance. As of press time, the leading donor nations were Australia ($810 million); Japan ($500 million) and the United States ($350 million). In addition, the Islamic Development Bank has promised Indonesia $200 million to help get the country back on track.
"Being on the receiving end, we appreciate and will never forgot those who helped us, even though we would like to maintain some level of dignity," said Brotodiningrat. "Unfortunately, Indonesia is a disaster-prone country, so we are used to this. But this was incomprehensible."
Even more incomprehensible is the idea that Muslim groups allied with al-Qaeda would launch a terrorist attack against foreign aid workers in Aceh province, which for years has been waging a protracted war for independence against the Indonesian government.
But that threat exists, even though the Bush administration is betting that massive U.S. military and economic aid to tsunami victims will alleviate anti-American sentiment in Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim country.
"This tactic will only be effective if they don't say it. Just do it and people will judge," he said. "But if people see that what the United States is doing is motivated by something other than helping, I'm afraid it will be counterproductive."
On the other hand, Brotodiningrat says he's encouraged by Acihnese rebels who have agreed to let those aid workers do their jobs free from interference.
"In the face of this very difficult situation, we are all brothers. For our part, we have already redirected all military operations toward disaster relief. On their side, we noted their statement that there was a ceasefire. Hopefully this will generate a more positive and continuing kind of rapproachment."
A similiar situation exists in Sri Lanka, where a long-running civil war has killed over 60,000 people over the last 20 years and forced the country's once-prosperous economy to stagnate. Two years ago, the rebel Tamil Tigers agreed to temporarily end their violent campaign for a separate homeland in the northeastern part of the island for Sri Lanka's 3.2 million ethnic Tamils.
Despite their differences, the Tigers have had extensive contact with the government in order to relieve the suffering for thousands of people who lost everything in the tsunami. Relief supplies are now getting into areas under rebel control, said Subasinghe.
"There was already an ongoing peace process, and by and large, that ceasefire was holding," he told the Diplomat. "The power of nature has manifested itself in a very epic form, and that's going to give us an opportunity to rise above all ethnic and political differences."
Close to one million Sri Lankans were left homeless by the big waves, which decimated 70% of the island's coastline and destroyed about 5,000 hotel rooms — further damaging the country's fragile economy, which is highly dependent on tourism.
Subasinghe said the U.S. Agency for International Development has a $10 million program in place to "get cash into people's hands to clear the debris" and help rebuild homes and small businesses.
For Subasinghe, this disaster hits particularly hard because both his mother and father are from Galle, a town on Sri Lanka's southern coast that was ripped apart by the tsunami's 20-foot waves.
"These were pristine villages and beaches, and it's heart-wrenching to see the damage that has been caused," he told us. "Society is just completely wiped out in a flash."
Even so, he added, "one always has to check one's emotions at the door. As I go about my work with the expatriate community and relief organizations, many people have called with expressions of condolence."
Subasinghe said between 60,000 and 100,000 Sri Lankans live in the United States — about 15,000 of them in the Washington area — and that many of them have sent money and supplies to help their homeland weather this crisis. The Sri Lankan Medical Association of North America and the Sri Lanka Assocation of Washington, D.C. have contributed generously, as have area Buddhist temples.
"This is a generous country and a compassionate country. Obviously, we're thankful for all the support," he said.
In the days following the tsunami, several newspaper articles surfaced recounting how poor Sri Lankan tsunami survivors literally gave the shirts off their backs to European tourists who were stranded on the island with nothing to wear.
Subasinghe noted that "generosity works in both directions. There were also many tourists who decided to stay there and help the locals."
The ambassador denied earlier published reports that his government, which has a sizeable Muslim minority, refused help from Israel in the days immediately following the tsunami.
"What happened was that Sri Lanka did issue a temporary halt to medical teams because we were overwhelmed and we needed to support them. It was not meant to be Israel-specific. An Israeli military team was ready to leave for Sri Lanka. We have since lifted that hold. We have had a very robust military relationship with Israel for many years."
Of the dozen countries struck by the disaster, Thailand is unique in that most of the victims were European tourists rather than locals.
"We had people from 30 countries in the area when it hit," said Ambassador Piromya. "It was the peak tourism season, and the area affected is the No. 1 tourism attraction in Thailand."
The tsunami killed untold thousands of foreigners — mainly Swedes, Germans, Norwegians and Swiss — who were vacationing at Thailand's famous beaches.
"We are asking the relatives living in Europe and the United States to send DNA samples of themselves so we can match them with the bodies that have been recovered," he said, explaining this would help identify the many still unaccounted-for victims. "Everybody will have two examinations in order to ascertain who's who."
Piromya said "a few hundred thousand" Thais remain homeless in six coastal provinces, and that "a lot of countries have already sent ministerial-rank delegations in order to bring relief to their people."
Piromya, who along with the three other ambassadors received President Bush and former presidents Clinton and George H.W. Bush at their respective embassies, said he was "extremely honored" by the unprecedented gesture.
Despite the immediate 20-30% loss in tourism revenues caused by the tsunami disaster, Piromya said Thailand expects to recover quickly, though he promised that his government would make financial aid to fisherman and other displaced people a priority over rebuilding hotels and other tourism infrastructure.
He also stressed the need for a tsunami warning system for the Indian Ocean similar to that which exists for nations bordering the Pacific Ocean.
"All of our heads of state have discussed this, and India has already taken the initiative to piggyback on seismological sensors they already have. We certainly need this. Whatever it costs, we must install it."
Since the disaster, Piromya says he's been overwhelmed by the outpouring of generosity arriving at the Royal Thai Embassy on Wisconsin Avenue — from not only presidents and prime ministers but also ordinary people, including schoolchildren.
"The shared suffering is very important. Maybe it will make everyone think about the futility of killing," he said. "I'm sure the Tamils in Sri Lanka the Muslims in Indonesia cannot comprehend so minute a thing after this disaster. I hope it will have that positive effect."
In India, the tsunami unleashed its worst fury on the remote Andaman and Nicobar island groups, home to primitive tribes that are rarely visited by mainland Indians, let alone foreigners.
Ambassador Sen, who spoke by phone with the Diplomat, said much of his time is spent explaining to people why India refused humanitarian assistance in the wake of such a disaster.
"This is not about pride or prestige. No country in the world would have been able to respond as fast as we could," he said, noting that the Indian Navy sent seven vessels to Sri Lanka the same day the tsunami hit. Likewise, the first hospital ship to arrive in Indonesia belonged to India.
"We have confidence in our ability to handle the situation on our own. In terms of expertise and resources, you're not talking in terms of weeks or days, but hours," he said. "In Andaman and Nicobar, our air bases were virtually wiped out. Many airmen were killed, and aircraft was destroyed. Yet the few helicopter pilots who survived got airborne and immediately started search and rescue operations."
Sen said "absolutely no foreign" aid workers have been allowed onto those islands, for fear of destroying what little remains of some of the world's most primitive, remote civilizations.
"The trauma they would face with foreigners would be as much if not higher than the tsunami itself. Ever since independence, we've been trying to protect them and preserve their way of life. You have to know how to approach these people. Even Indians are not allowed to go there without proper training."
With over a billion inhabitants, India is the world's second-most populous country. It also has a rapidly growing middle class, and is making important inroads in several global industries including petroleum, telecommunications and biotechnology.
"We are not a borrower but officially a creditor to the IMF," said the ambassador. "We are giving hundreds of millions of dollars to less-developed countries. We have already spent more than $400 million in Afghanistan, and we've written off the debts of many sub-Saharan African countries. The image of India that's stuck in people's minds just doesn't correspond to reality."
Perhaps that's why, he said, in the wake of the tsunami disaster, "people send medicines to a country which produces medicines at a fraction of the price as here, and clothing to a country that's one of the world's largest producers of textiles."
Cash donations are best, he said, though "more than 95% of what is collected will be from within India." As we went to press, the Prime Minister's Relief Fund had raised more than $120 million — with much of the money coming from the poorest sectors of society.
"It's not just money," he said. "It's a sense of sympathy and solidarity which has been a very big source of solace and strengh for us as we deal with these formidable challenges. Even as we speak, we're continuing our assistance programs to neighboring countries whose plight is worse than ours. And you can't put a price tag on that."