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The Golden Wave

Culture and Politics after Sri Lanka’s Tsunami Disaster

Michele Ruth Gamburd

Publication Year: 2013

In December 2004 the Indian Ocean tsunami devastated coastal regions of Sri Lanka. Six months later, Michele Ruth Gamburd returned to the village where she had been conducting research for many years and began collecting residents' stories of the disaster and its aftermath: the chaos and loss of the flood itself; the sense of community and leveling of social distinctions as people worked together to recover and regroup; and the local and national politics of foreign aid as the country began to rebuild. In The Golden Wave, Gamburd describes how the catastrophe changed social identities, economic dynamics, and political structures.

Published by: Indiana University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-x

Minutes after the Indian Ocean Tsunami struck, family, friends, and strangers began to help the tsunami survivors. In the United States, the scholars who do research in Sri Lanka activated our personal and professional networks to send money and other aid overseas. Sincere thanks are due to all who supported the humanitarian...

Abbreviations, Names, and Sinhala Terms

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pp. xi-xvi

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Introduction: Political Ethnography of Disaster

“Why do they put a ‘T’ in front of sunaami [tsunami] in English?” my driver asked me.1 We were humming along the winding coastal road that morning in 2005 in his trishaw, an open three-wheeled auto-rickshaw. I explained that tsunami was a Japanese word and that “TS” was one of their letters...

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Wijitha’s Story

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pp. 13-17

Wijitha was a colleague of Siri’s wife Telsie; both women taught at the primary school in Naeaegama. An animated extrovert, Wijitha related her tsunami experiences in vivid detail. I heard Wijitha’s tsunami narrative three times. The first time, in a crowded trishaw, I was unable to write it down. I asked Wijitha if she would relate it again, when...

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1 That Day: Chaos and Solidarity

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pp. 18-29

Mahanama Thero, the chief monk at the Naeaegama temple, described the events of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 26, 2004, in these words: Even today we can’t imagine how this disaster happened. What came in was bad water. It was not like ordinary seawater. It was black and muddy. Some parents tried to hold onto their children, but the water was too strong...

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Dr. Priyanka’s Story

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pp. 30-31

Dr. Priyanka, a well-liked local physician, is a tall, dynamic man in his forties. He spared Siri and me a half hour of his lunch break to tell us his experiences during the tsunami. We spoke on the shady balcony of his home, which occupied the floor above his private dispensary. The tsunami happened at about nine thirty. I was on duty at the Balapitiya Hospital...

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2 Deaths: Fate and Vulnerability

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pp. 32-46

Prasanna, who worked in the army, discussed tsunami fatalities. He said, “Our military people from all branches of the service helped collect the dead bodies. For example, we helped in Peraeliya [at the site of the train derailment where 1,200 people died]. The civilians didn’t want to do this work, and they didn’t have the right equipment for carrying bodies. Those bodies were decomposing; they were coming apart...

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Pradeep and Manoj’s Story

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pp. 47-49

Siri’s and Telsie’s son was good friends from high school with Pradeep and Manoj, two young men in their early thirties who lived near each other in Balapitiya. Pradeep, a village-level government administrator (grama niladhari or GN), and Manoj, a banker, visited Siri’s house occasionally. The two friends stopped by one Saturday morning in...

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3 Short-Term Camps: Chaos and the Crafting of Order

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pp. 50-67

In mid-2005, Ari and Wije told Siri and me what it was like to grapple with the magnitude of the relief efforts in the aftermath of the tsunami disaster. Ari and Wije were government poverty alleviation workers (samurdhi nyamakas or SNs). Ari noted, “There was no organization at first because all the SNs and GNs had also run from the tsunami!...

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Sumendra’s Story

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pp. 68-70

Sumendra, a near neighbor of Wijitha and a civil servant who worked at the Divisonal Secretariat, had gotten caught in the tsunami. We interviewed her and her husband Jayaweera in 2005. Sumendra began, “The sea went way back.” “I went to see it,” Jayaweera exclaimed. “The people who worked the fish nets had all...

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4 Housing: Temporary Shelters, Permanent Homes, and the Buffer Zone

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pp. 71-91

Funds for housing constituted a major portion Sri Lanka’s “unprecedented” amount of international tsunami aid (Kuhn 2010, 42; K. Silva 2009, 61, 66; de Silva 2009, 1). About half of the people who were initially displaced by the tsunami—for example, those whose residences were muddied but not structurally damaged by the waves—were able to return home quickly. But in mid-June 2005, five hundred thousand people...

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Lalitha’s Story

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pp. 92-93

After a ceremony to open newly built homes in Godagama, south of Ambalangoda, Lalitha told Siri and me of her experiences during the tsunami. She made clear that tiny decisions and events made a huge difference that day—whether a son obeyed his mother’s command; whether a bill was late at the wholesaler; whether one ran to the...


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pp. 94-98

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5 Dangerous Liaisons: The Power, Peril, and Politics of Mediating between Donors and Recipients

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pp. 99-116

Administering aid—the gift-giving end of the humanitarian relationship—is an admittedly difficult endeavor, especially in a disaster as large and complex as the tsunami. Disaster studies specialist Timmo Gaasbeek (2010, 125) notes that a “flood of foreign volunteers, aid workers and NGOs” inundated Sri Lanka following the disaster. When I arrived in Naeaegama in July 2005, the tourist economy had been devastated...

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Jagath’s Story

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pp. 117-118

Jagath worked in the kitchen at the Triton Hotel. In mid-July, Siri and I held a lengthy interview with him. Sitting on Siri’s porch, Jagath related his experience of the tsunami. We had a full house on Christmas night. I had been on duty for twenty-four hours. Most of the guests were from Germany and Switzerland. On the day of the tsunami,...

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6 Business Recovery: Tourism and Construction

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pp. 119-134

The tsunami damaged businesses both large and small up and down Sri Lanka’s southern coastline. The value of the damages in Sri Lanka was estimated at US$1.1 billion, with 31.8 percent of these damages in productive sectors (Telford, Cosgrave, and Houghton 2006, 37). Highly visible in the international news were the loss of fishing...

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Dayawansa’s Story

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pp. 135-136

Dayawansa is a retired schoolmaster who lives a few hundred meters from Siri’s house. On the day of the tsunami, Dayawansa was in Randombe (near Ambalangoda) visiting a marriage broker who lived close to the Cabana Hotel. Here is the story that he told me and Siri about his tsunami experience...

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7 Reconstructing Class: Discourse on Theft, Loot, Cheating, and Gifts

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pp. 137-153

Immediately following the tsunami, Naeaegama villagers reported a sense of generosity, equality, and open-hearted community spirit. Shortly thereafter a reassertion followed of self-interest and social hierarchy. As people strove to make sense of damage, death, and disbursement of disaster aid, they interpreted what had happened, why it...

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Fazmina’s Story

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pp. 154-157

Siri and I interviewed Fazmina, a Muslim woman who lived in Balapitiya and served as a government poverty alleviation program worker. Fazmina, her Sinhala neighbor Wijitha, her uncle Faizal, and several other family members spoke with us about their experiences on the day of the tsunami. (Fazmina also generously shared her story...

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8 The Politics of Corruption: Accusations and Rebuttals

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pp. 158-174

As the immediate crisis ebbed, government officials and international donors took over the administration of aid from the religious institutions, local organizations, and private citizens who had met displaced people’s initial needs. By mid-2005, tsunami relief and recovery operations were in full swing, and Naeaegama area residents...

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Tharindu’s Story

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pp. 175-176

Tharindu’s family lived in Naeaegama. In his early twenties, Tharindu was in the army, studying for his BA in electrical engineering. One evening in late August 2005, he told Siri and me in impeccable English about his experiences on the day of the tsunami. That day I was on leave in Nuwara Eliya [a town in the hill country]. We get seven...

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9 Citizenship and Ethnicity: The Tsunami and the Civil War

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pp. 177-192

In mid-2005, Siri and I spoke with Deepak. A fit, humorous man in his thirties, Deepak sat with us on his porch as a group of neighborhood children played an informal game of cricket in the sandy courtyard. Deepak was stationed in Jaffna with the Sri Lankan Army and told us about the post-tsunami situation in the North. Although the area near the Palali Air Force Base was only 150 meters from the sea,...

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pp. 193-198

As Emerson reflected in 2009 on his family’s displacement from their seaside home, I asked, “Do you have bad dreams about the tsunami?” “Since that day, I haven’t spent a night near the ocean. We have always been in safe places. So I haven’t had any bad dreams. But I used to swim in the ocean all the...


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pp. 199-202


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pp. 203-210


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pp. 211-216

About the Author

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p. 217-217

E-ISBN-13: 9780253011503
Print-ISBN-13: 9780253011381

Page Count: 234
Illustrations: 10 b&w illus., 2 maps
Publication Year: 2013