On Boxing Day 2004, at around 9 am Malaysian time, an earthquake measuring 9.15 on the Richter Scale occurred. It gave birth to a terrifying tsunami that hit the littoral states of the Indian Ocean and even up to the eastern coast of the African continent.
Officially the worst affected nation was Indonesia. Its province of Aceh in nothern Sumatra suffered approxinately 450,000 although the official figures could never be correctly estimated for the reason that many countless thousands were swept into the seas. A rough extent of its death toll could be seen in its collection of around 500 corpses per day even as lare as February 2005. That macabre figure was then expected to be maintained until at least the middle of the year, or even longer.
Unofficially I reckoned India suffered the worst in terms of death toll. As many as 1 million of its people were thought to have perished. Its tsunami victims, like Indonesia's, included hundreds of thousands of unregistered and thus nameless inhabitants on its east coast, where complete villages disappeared from the face of the earth. Many were vagrants and the homeless.
In its Andaman Islands, which suffered the earliest casualties, an entire air force base and its residents were totalled. Again India refused to come out officially with the true estimates but experts suspected that the figures had been very high. There was virtually no warning available to the Andaman Islanders.
There was a TV documentary recently that indicated the Andaman aborigines had escaped the worst of the tsunami by moving on to higher grounds just prior to the devastation because of a primordial instinct for nature's calamity.
In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, India chose to grandstand by sending a flotilla of warships to lend aid to other affected countries when it could ill afford to do that. Initially it had proudly refused international aid but had to eat crow subsequently and accepted same. Such was the foolish pride that a status-conscious India had indulged in.
One year later in Sumatra, Aceh still requires much re-development. A mixture of mindless bureaucracy, inter-ethnic and xenophobic suspicions, and an insurgency problem has held back the physical re-habilitation of its residents. A major portion of the aid remains yet to be fruitfully utilised. Some significant portion of Australia's 1 billion dollar aid to the tsunami affected area are now slated for development work in other parts of Indonesia.
In Sri Lanka the exact same problems of bureaucracy, inter-ethnic and xenophobic suspicions, and an insurgency problem exists. India of course remains silent about the rehabilitation of its victims.
While Malaysia was affected in Penang and parts of Kedah, our losses, though monumental to the families of the victims were relatively, I stress 'relatively', light.
The significantly affected nation that did best in recovering has been Thailand. It has almost re-developed its affected areas in stark contrast to places like Aceh or Sri Lanka, and it didn't require foreign aid. It is a tribute to the dynamism of its government as well as the resilence of its people. I had hoped it would use the opportunity to include the Muslim segment of its southern population in the rehabilitation of the area. Now, it has an additional challenge, of rehabilitating the current flood-affected areas.
One of the most disturbing mindset that came to notice out of this human tragedy has been the religious factor.
Indonesian Muslims feared and still fear overseas Christians exploiting the circumstances to proselytise their Muslim citizens in Aceh, Fundamentalist Muslim groups have threatened western aid workers, wanting them expelled from an Aceh that is still significantly un-re-developed. They are more concerned about their control of their parish than its welfare.
Meanwhile on the other side of the coin, I know of one minor Christian group in Australia who was concerned that its donations were not going to Christians in the affected nations. It then held back half of the collected donations, with a plan to build a church with that in the victim's locality.
While spiritual congregation would be well and good, the urgent need then was for medicine, shelter, clean drinking water and food. Holding back donations that could have help relieve the dire needs of the victims just to build a house of God in reality did God no honour nor show of compassion. The souls of the victims might have been superficially saved but their earthly lives were threatened by those religiously motivated holdbacks.
The same attitude prevailed among some Muslims in a couple of countries. Donations collected was meant only for Muslim victims. Some Arabs even condemned the victims as deserving of Allah's wrath for their sins, and in similar fashion as the Christian case, did Allah no honour. In fact those sanctimous charlatans daringly usurped Allah's almighty prerogative of divine judgement.
Mind you, other ethnic groups, some in Australia, collecting materials and monies for the tsunami victims behaved in likewise fashion - they collected only for their ethnic kinfolks.
The tsunami brought out the best of human traits in mankind, while religion in a few cases brought out the worst.
In Penang, Chinese-Buddhist groups collected and distributed aid to families of Malay fishermen affected by the tsunami. Those Malays who received such aid were moved to sarcastically remarked of government officials, "Those Chinese didn't check whether we were UMNO or PKR supporters before they provided the aid."
Apart from those generous private contributions, KTemoc, speaking as a non-Christian, must praise the Christian nations most for their incredible response. The Europeans and Aussies have been magnificent. The Japanese, Chinese, Russians and others including American citizens were equally generous. The worst were the rich Gulf Arab nations even though they did cough up eventually (and grudingly), principally because their own press harrassed them.