Dharma Crumbs

By Peter Byrne, From the January 12-18, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian

Sebastopol, Calif. (USA) -- A FEW MILES NORTH of Sebastopol is a restored farmhouse fronted by a Buddhist shrine sparkling with tiny mirrors. This is the home of retired Burmese physician Dr. Thynn Thynn and the Sae Taw Winn II Foundation, of which she is the spiritual leader. It is one of the few locally based organizations collecting money for victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami.

Specifically, Thynn is funneling the $10,000 in small donations she has so far raised to her Buddhist colleague in Sri Lanka, A. T. Ariyaratne. Ariyaratne is the spiritual leader of a popular movement called Sarvodaya in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. With 30,000 people dead and a million displaced, that island nation was the second hardest hit by the tidal wave after Sumatra. Sarvodaya volunteers have fanned out to provide relief in Tamil Eelam, the northern part of the country, where at least 10,000 people drowned.

While Thynn's 10 grand may not seem like much, small donations could make the difference between economic independence or being overwhelmed by another kind of tsunami: the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

"We need development from the grassroots level up, without these huge corporations that come in and make prototypes of Western industrialization in the Third World," Thynn says. "I think it is, really, almost a crime."

For two decades, the minority Tamils--who are mostly Hindu--have fought a civil war with their Sinhalan neighbors to the south, who are mostly Buddhist and have governed the former British colony since the end of WW II. The Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam--famous for their ferocity in battle--desire to separate their ancient nation from the neocolonial construct called Sri Lanka. The rebels are concerned that the central government will shortchange them on relief funding, and use the disaster as an opportunity to oppress them.

Thynn supports Sarvodaya because she is a yogi in Ariyaratne's brand of religion, called Theravada Buddhism, and in favor of his mission to heal the murderous rift between north and south. Ariyaratne, who helped to broker the civil war's current ceasefire, originally won the trust of the Tamils by working with thousands of small villages to build self-sustaining communities.

The United States government does not subscribe to the Theravadan principles of dana (generosity) and metta (nonviolence). It also considers the Tamil Tigers to be an illegal terrorist organization. Not surprisingly, the U.S. Agency for International Development is working with the Sinhalese military, coordinating its $37 million relief effort under the umbrella of the largest mobilization of warships and American soldiers seen in South East Asia since the Vietnam War.

According to the U.S. Department of State, we have so far committed only $78 million to humanitarian assistance in the tsunami-affected region, which the U.S. views as a hotbed of revolution. Eager to garrison the Indian Ocean rim, Bush is directing that most of the $350 million pledged to date by the U.S. be used for long-term reconstruction, not emergency relief. "We should look at redevelopment loans," said Secretary of State Colin Powell as he toured the area.

Bingo. Teams of World Bank and IMF officials popped up, ready to loan billions of "redevelopment" dollars to nations already impoverished by outstanding "development" loans. (Sri Lanka's public debt, for example, exceeds its gross domestic product.)

Viewing satellite photographs of devastated tourist resorts and thousands of miles of coastlands, rich in natural resources, ports and cheap labor--it is not hard to predict what happens next. American and British corporations will descend upon Indonesia, Thailand, India and Sri Lanka like locusts. Since tens of thousands of property owners and their heirs were swept away by the waves, Westerners will snatch up the choice lands. The modus operandi of relief, American-style, guarantees that local bureaucracies will funnel their World Bank loan proceeds to the usual "reconstruction" suspects: Bechtel, Halliburton, Bearing Point, Louis Berger Group and Perini Corporation.

It took a few days for the light bulb to explode inside Bush's head so he could see the upside to the tsunami--trading a trickle of relief for geopolitical gain and profits for his coalition of the killing, which is experiencing technical difficulties in Iraq. With no superpower to oppose them this time, U.S. leaders have a chance to indulge their dream of ringing the Indian Ocean with military bases and debt-dependent dictators. As in Vietnam and Iraq and Afghanistan, they will fail to achieve their grand goal of everlasting empire, but not before adding to the already intolerable burden of suffering.

"My small operation is a sesame seed compared to the tsunami," says Thynn. "But I could not do nothing." Unlike war, she says, a natural disaster breaks down the borders between peoples. But the yogi is not bullish on American compassion. She knows who to blame for the desperate condition of the world's vast majority, as much as a Buddhist blames anyone.