The tsunami and environmental responsibility

Two years on from the tsunami that struck on 26 December 2004 I was coincidentally travelling through Khao Lak, a hub for scuba divers heading to the Similan Islands and one of the most tsunami-impacted areas in Thailand. A pamphlet from the Ministry of Transport and distributed by dive shops introduces the concept behind a “Tsunami Undersea Memorial” established in Khao Lak three months earlier:

Mother Nature is beautiful. Between human and nature there exists an extraordinary relationship. We are at her mercy not knowing when the natural disaster will strike. The design of Tsunami memorial reminds us of this intricate relationship.

Interestingly, at the time of the tsunami a young Lao woman in Vientiane offered a comparable assertion of the relationship linking people to the natural environment. She explained to me how “…Buddhist religion teaches people not to damage the environment because it will all come back”. Buddhism teaches about “balance” between people and the environment, if this balance is disrupted then nature may retaliate. She then attributed the tsunami affecting Thailand but not Laos as partly due to Laos having relatively more forests and less development. With ambivalence she described the construction in Vientiane of ITECC – the Lao-International Trade and Exhibition and Convention Center – saying how the government had long kept the area as farms to keep “nature” and “not to change”. Then business people paid the government money, officials changed their minds, cleared the farms and built ITECC. Development, change, state-business collusion and uncertainty were contrasted with farms, nature, balance and stability. “Business-people are just looking for money …”, she said, “I do not know what will happen in the future if things keep changing like this … maybe it is better to plant trees than to chop them down or otherwise bad things like the tsunami could happen”.

The key difference between these two accounts is the allocation of responsibility for a natural disaster. The official Thai position not surprisingly posits a capricious and unpredictable nature while a local Lao view attributes a vengeful nature responding to a deficient state, the latter showing how natural disasters can become symbols of demerit and reveal ambivalence towards state-sanctioned development. While views of the tsunami – Thai and Lao – would be incredibly varied, these comments do suggest a broad perception of the dependence of people’s well-being on the natural environment with natural disasters then carrying implications for the definition of state responsibility.