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Oneness of suffering and sharing

January 1, 2005

Dear Family and Friends,

It was wonderful to be back in the United States for more than three months at the end of last year and spend time with my family and see many friends again. This joy, however, quickly turned to sorrow as the Dec. 26 tsunami hit many countries in South and Southeast Asia as well as East Africa just before I returned to Hong Kong. Stories and photographs of the destruction and people’s pain filled pages of our newspapers for days. As I write this letter, nearly 234,000 people have been confirmed dead, making it the sixth worst natural disaster in history. Our organization, the Asian Human Rights Commission (AHRC), has done something we have never done before as a result of the tsunami—become involved in disaster relief. Because of our human rights network in various parts of Sri Lanka, we were able to ascertain people’s immediate needs quickly and send clothes, medicine, school supplies and computers to assist in the identification of the victims. Several schools in Hong Kong collected clothes that were shipped for free by Hong Kong’s major airline. The process of rebuilding though will obviously be a long one. In this regard, we are now ascertaining how we might best be involved to ensure that a rights-based approach is utilized in the reconstruction.

Unfortunately, we cannot rewind the destructive events of Dec. 26 and prevent the tragedy that unfolded that day. We can only grieve with those who have lost so much and help them rebuild their lives, most of whom were among Asia’s poor. In the process of reconstruction though, there is the opportunity of recreation.

Prior to the tsunami, the fisher folk and others affected by this disaster were powerless, marginalized and frequently exploited. They never had a voice in the development decisions that affected their lives. Others in the nation’s capital or even in faraway lands set the policies that determined the economic and social boundaries of their lives. Now, as a result of the tsunami, there is a clean development canvass that offers the possibility that the poor can be in the center, instead of the periphery, of the development decision-making process. Whether this vision becomes a reality depends on those who wield political and economic power in the devastated countries and abroad, such as the U.S. and other donor governments, the World Bank, etc. If recent events in Sri Lanka are any indication, however, this vision is unlikely to become reality, for it has been reported that the Sri Lankan government wants to move inland the fisher folk who lived on the coast—presumably for their “protection”—and allow large foreign hotels to build resorts on the beaches. This decision, if implemented, will make it very difficult, if not impossible, for the fisher folk to earn a living from the sea again.

Another similar concern is that those now displaced by the tsunami will not be resettled in their former communities. If people had a legal document showing ownership of their land before the tsunami, it is now almost certainly missing, and records in government offices may have been destroyed as well. Thus, how will they prove that they formerly lived in a particular community? In such a legal vacuum, government officials can easily resettle people on less productive land and permit the best land and coastal areas to be given to those with political connections or foreign investors. Meanwhile, in the war-torn area of Aceh, the Indonesian government can move people to what, in essence, are strategic hamlets, using the rationale perhaps that infrastructure and services can only be provided in these limited areas or that their former areas are uninhabitable. These explanations, of course, may be true, but a military goal may be served as well as yielding to rehabilitation realities; for in this way, the Indonesian government can separate the Acehenese people from the Free Aceh Movement, known by the local language acronym of GAM, which has been fighting for Aceh’s independence since 1976, and thus weaken their movement.

In reflecting on what has transpired in the past few weeks in the wake of this calamity, it is evident that one’s ethnicity, nationality, class, age or gender did not matter. The tsunami did not differentiate by these demographic indicators that often separate us from each other.Rather, before the tsunami’s wall of raging water, everyone was equally affected by this tragedy; everyone was the same. This oneness of suffering has been echoed by a oneness of caring as the global human family has become connected in a way that rarely occurs. How though can this oneness, this compassion, be maintained? Our world could be a different place if our renewed sense of humanity and oneness would continue and would guide us to resolve the issues that prohibit us from seeing ourselves in the other who appears different to us.

With Peace,

Bruce Van Voorhis

Bruce Van Voorhis serves as missionary with the Asian Human Rights Commission located in Hong Kong. He serves as a writer and editor with the Commission


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