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Tsunami Diplomacy

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Radix:  Radical Interpretations of and Solutions for Disasters

Indian Ocean Tsunami 26 December 2004

On 26 December 2004, an earthquake off the coast of Sumatra, Indonesia and subsequent tsunamis killed more than 250,000 people and caused widespread damage in more than a dozen countries around the Indian Ocean. Even long after the event, we must hope for continued regional and international cooperation in helping those affected and in rebuilding to a less vulnerable state where people are aware of tsunami threats, receive warnings, and know how to react.

Possible disaster diplomacy outcomes considered have been:

  • Australia: The government's swift response, especially compared to other more affluent countries, and strong interest in being heavily involved in the aid work, especially in Indonesia, could assist in asserting Australia's leadership in the region; for example, courting Indonesia following East Timor's independence and Australia's involvement in the Iraq war plus mending relations with other nearby countries, such as East Timor which was annoyed by Australia's dominance of dispute-resolution processes.

  • Burma/Myanmar: Relief or reconstruction opening doors into the country.

  • India: India-USA military cooperation and a thawing of relations between India and the USA. India's initial post-tsunami statement that the country did not need inernational aid precluded possible Pakistani assistance. India's assistance to Sri Lanka could help mend difficulties between those two countries.

  • Indonesia: Aceh has been opened up to the international community to provide relief. Improvements in Indonesia's relations with Australia and the USA.

  • Israel: Israeli aid teams assisting Muslims. Israeli teams arrived in only Thailand and Sri Lanka to be told that their assistance was not required, so they then returned home.

  • Maldives: Government-opposition reconciliation.

  • Somalia: A reduction of the internal conflict.

  • Sri Lanka: A reduction of the international conflict. India's assistance to Sri Lanka could help mend difficulties between those two countries.

  • Cooperation regionally and internationally for a tsunami warning system as well as matching education and awareness.

  • Cooperation and coordination regionally and internationally in providing aid on such a large scale to such a wide region. Several countries which have not traditionally been donors provided assistance with the possibility of portending a new era or structure of international aid assistance.

Most of these possibilities did not manifest. Reasons include:

  • Disaster diplomacy was a false lead; for example, for improving American-Indonesian relations since Indonesia and the USA already had good ties and most Indonesians do not harbour antipathy against the West nor would they ever resort to violence against the West.

  • Neither side was keen to use the tsunami as an excuse for changes; for example, Indian-American relations for trade for of more interest to both sides.

  • Other events had more impact; for example, Australian-East Timorese relations have been more affected by the collapse of security in East Timor.

  • Peace has not been a priority for parties in conflict, irrespective of the tsunami; for example, Somalis.

Further information:

Norway's memorial to those who died in the tsunami (Oslo, Norway, 2017).

Norway's tsunami memorial (Oslo, Norway).
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2017.)


  • Radix Tsunami Page.

  • Greg Hansen (1 January 2005) wrote Potential Implications of the South Asian Tsunami Disaster for the Humanitarian Situation in Iraq (211 kb in Word). Some of his points apply to the Darfur emergency too, although "Darfur aversion" will be even more enhanced since most donor countries had little interest in being involved there in the first place.

  • Marcus Moench (2 January 2005) wrote Responding to Life’s Changed Shores: The Challenge of Transition and Adaptation Following the Tsunami (251 kb in Word). Given all the changes which the tsunami has forced and the infeasibility of returning to the previous state (the so-called "normal" state), what cross-border, cross-cultural political changes will result from local government to international geopolitics?

  • Commentary by Ilan Kelman (7 January 2005):
             Will tsunami diplomacy influence Indonesian-American or Indo-American relations? The preliminary answer appears to be no because other factors have been more important in the diplomatic interactions of those pairs.
             Comments from Washington and Jakarta suggest that the American military operation to bring humanitarian relief to affected parts of Indonesia will be good for Indonesian-American relations. The USA and Indonesia have traditionally had close relations, including military, economic, and political ties. At times difficulties have emerged, such as in October 2000 when a new American ambassador to Jakarta decided to tackle corruption. As well, independence for East Timor, and the Indonesian military's rampant run across East Timor in the run-up to independence, caused some complications for Jakarta-Washington relations, although, as usual, Washington was not overly concerned about the human rights abuses, violence, or murders of UN workers and other civilians.
             Overall, the American government’s 2002 statement that "The United States views Indonesia as the cornerstone of regional security in Southeast Asia and a key trade partner. U.S. interests in the region depend on Indonesia's stability and economic growth." sums up their ties, despite all the ironies present in that statement. USAID had a 7-point programme for Indonesia in 2004, American government aid is hundreds of millions of dollars, American oil interests (of course) are billions of dollars, and the USA represents immense amounts of ongoing trade for Indonesia. In the absence of rash comments by either side, this level of cooperation will continue irrespective of the tsunami.
             Similarly, not much will change with respect to the relatively frosty Indian-American relations. India initially indicated that they did not want foreign aid for the tsunami, a particular snub to the Americans, and any American push for closer ties is--quite legitimately--likely to be seen as muscling in for purposes of attempting political interference in the region.
             The strong potential for a Bush visit to India in 2005--he would become the fifth American president to visit India and the first Republican since Richard Nixon--should be watched closely, because that has a strong potential to significantly change Indo-American relations. The reason is mainly economic rather than disaster-related. Both countries wish to take advantage of the trade opportunities with the other. As in most instances, many more reasons exist for diplomacy (in this case, money), and are considered to be much more important by the governments involved, than mere human suffering and calamity.
             Back to Indonesia, it would be naïve to assume that American tsunami aid will reduce terrorism. Colin Powell sees the relief as "an opportunity to see American generosity, American values in action". The world, Muslims, and non-Muslims, have already had enough of American generosity and values in action through the thousands of civilians killed in the Iraq war and the millions killed over past decades by American governments protecting their own economic and political interests.
             A relief and reconstruction operation--even one which lasts months before the media lose interest and the world becomes sidetracked by other important issues such as Hollywood couples and the latest prime-time sitcom--has only a small potential for overcoming the deep level of anti-American hatred which exists in some sectors of Indonesia. For the vast majority of Indonesians who would never resort to violence and who are much more concerned with day-to-day living than with international geopolitics, the aid will be gratefully received, but in terms of human beings (who happen to be Americans) assisting human beings (who happen to be Indonesian) rather than as being an anti-terrorism measure. The survivors will also be concentrating on rebuilding their lives and livelihoods while remembering the dead rather than being concerned about national and international security, particularly when the impacts are mainly felt in such remote locations such as Washington, London, and Rome.
             The dynamics of the Aceh rebellion have been affected through utter devastation. Some anti-Western elements might appreciate the aid received. In this case, though, for those who feel such resentment and who would resort to violence in response, the power of American-created and supported long-term disasters and exploitation in Indonesia will likely far outweigh that of American short-term tsunami diplomacy.

  • 31 March 2005 Sociological Research Online publishes the paper Kelman (2005).

  • May 2005 Shanghai Institute For International Studies International Review and World Economy and Politics publish the paper Weizhun and Tianshu (2005)

  • NIAS. 2005 (June). "The tsunami and its social and political implications". Nias Nytt - Asia Insights, no. 2.

  • Scanlon, J. 2006. "Dealing with the Tsunami Dead: Unprecedented International Co-operation". Australian Journal of Emergency Management, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 57-61.

  • McGibbon, R. 2006. "Transforming Separatist Conflict". Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, vol. 7, no. 2, pp. 121-130.

  • Le Billon and Waizenegger (2007) publish an article in Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers on secessionist conflicts and the tsunami.

  • Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung Division for International Cooperation, Department for Asia and the Pacific. 2007. A New Dynamic for Peace? Post-Tsunami Reconstruction and its Impact on Conflict Resolution: Case studies from India, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Thailand. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Berlin, Germany

  • Enia (2008) publishes an article in the Journal of Public and International Affairs comparing disaster diplomacy in Sri Lanka and Aceh.

  • Beardsley, K. and B. McQuinn. 2009. "Rebel Groups as Predatory Organizations: The Political Effects of the 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka". Journal of Conflict Resolution, vol. 53, no. 4, pp. 624-645.

  • Stokke, K., O Törnquist, and G.M. Sindre. 2009. "Conflict Resolution and Democratisation in the aftermath of the 2004 Tsunami: A Comparative Analysis of Aceh and Sri Lanka". PCD Journal, vol. 1, no. 1-2, pp. 129-149.

  • Hyndman, J. 2011. Dual Disasters: Humanitarian Aid After the 2004 Tsunami. Kumarian Press, Sterling, Virginia, U.S.A.

  • Klimesova, M. 2011 (March). Using Carrots to Bring Peace? Negotiation and Third Party Involvement. PhD Dissertation, Charles University in Prague, Prague, Czech Republic, abstract in English and Czech (236 kb in pdf) and then published as:
    Klimesova, M. 2016. Using Carrots to Bring Peace? Negotiation and Third Party Involvement. World Scientific, Singapore, order it here.

  • Klitzsch, N. 2014. "Disaster politics or disaster of politics? Post-tsunami conflict transformation in Sri Lanka and Aceh, Indonesia". Cooperation and Conflict, vol. 49, no. 4, pp. 554-573.

The U.K.'s memorial to those who died in the tsunami (London, U.K., 2016).

The U.K.'s tsunami memorial (London, U.K.).
(Copyright Ilan Kelman 2016.)


  • Commentary by Ilan Kelman (24 January 2005):
             On 23 January, an announcement was made that the Indonesian government and the rebels in Aceh were soon to resume peace talks in Helsinki. This encouraging sign appears to have resulted as a consequence of the tsunami and might indicate disaster diplomacy. Some caution is required:
             (a) Is it a legitimate offer and interest from both sides or only public relations?
             (b) Is this really a new initiative or were there secret talks or backroom shuttle diplomacy going on before the tsunami? In particular, the report is about "resuming" peace talks. Is this initiative a continuation of on-again, off-again attempts to resolve the dispute peacefully?
             (c) Will it lead to anything long-lasting or, like India-Pakistan following the Gujarat earthquake, will it bring high hopes of disaster diplomacy followed by failure?
             An additional concern is that the publicity given to these talks could undermine them. The world, and many Indonesians and Acehnese want peace and might expect and demand that disaster diplomacy produces results. If the politicians, diplomats, issues, or negotiating atmosphere is not conducive to rapid resolution, the pressure and publicity of the disaster diplomacy paradigm could produce failure..
             One possible approach is for the world and media to step back a bit and let the two sides talk and negotiate on their own terms and at their own pace. Immense reconstruction is still needed in Aceh. Let us consider focusing on that, so that the people can put their livelihoods and communities back together as much as possible. Despite the devastation, the survivors still have a future and there is much which the world can do to assist.
             Meanwhile, diplomatic pressure away from the spotlight can be exerted to achieve a lasting peace. If such an achievement is made, Aceh and the rest of Indonesia can finally move forward from the conflict and the tsunami. Then, we can sit down and analyse the peace process systematically to determine the effects of disaster diplomacy. Otherwise, pushing this view now and forcing a peace deal to be reached because of the tsunami could be counterproductive.

  • 15 August 2005 A peace deal is signed for Aceh. BBC Coverage.

  • Commentary by Firoz Verjee (19 August 2005):
             The recent agreement between the Aceh rebel movement GAM and the Government of Indonesia is a remarkable breakthrough and a fine example of disaster diplomacy. Credit goes to the Finnish for brokering the peace.
             Section 3 of the agreement details the rules of amnesty, reintegration into society, and the need for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Other sections define the economic relationship between Aceh and Jakarta, as well as the security and dispute resolution mechanisms that will hopefully sustain the agreement.
             Many questions remain. Did any other factors, aside from the catastrophic effects of the 2004 tsunami, motivate GAM to lay down arms? Why did it take 200,000 fatalities and near annihilation for the parties to reconcile their differences? How stable can such a reconciliation really be? What has been done to address the root causes of alienation in Aceh?

  • Commentary by Ilan Kelman (21 August 2005):
             Irrespective of disaster diplomacy (or not), it is a relief that in Aceh and Sri Lanka, peace does appear to be progressing with the parties involved genuinely seeking a way forward--in the face of some intense opposition along with the various setbacks we have witnessed. Like Northern Ireland, perhaps it will get there eventually even through a remarkable roller coaster.
             Next, it is important to examine the disaster diplomacy dimensions and the questions which Firoz asks are apposite. In both Aceh and Sri Lanka, disaster diplomacy unquestionably exists to some degree. I am always cautious at assuming that disaster diplomacy was the main factor because deeper investigation has always before shown the complexity of these situations and how the disaster is one factor, often quite small, amongst many. At some level we, especially the media, wish to believe that disaster diplomacy happens, hence we specifically look for it and are biased towards accepting its appearance.
             Nonetheless, I would say that two points highlighted for Aceh are key and they also apply to Sri Lanka:
             1. The comment by the International Crisis Group in their Asia Briefing N°40, 15 August 2005 that the tsunami "made it politically desirable for both sides to work toward a settlement". Yes, the pressure was immense, not really because of tsunami reconstruction but because the world suddenly realized that Aceh existed and what the people had gone through. It is a natural slide from there into linking peace and reconstruction, into world attention when Indonesia attempts to close down Aceh again, and into donors assertively setting conditions. Everything from illegal logging to an Indian Ocean tsunami warning system have kept the Aceh situation on the political radar. So, ironically, perhaps disaster diplomacy here is a result of the world's awareness induced by the disaster rather than of the specific disaster event leading to a humanitarian imperative for peace. Also, it looks as if Indonesia's leadership has changed its attitudes, particularly since the East Timor precedent.
             2. Firoz remarks "How stable can such a reconciliation really be...what has been done to address the root causes of alienation in Aceh?" Root causes of alienation is fundamental in both cases--and, of course, in most international affairs cases. For Aceh and Sri Lanka, has tsunami diplomacy pushed the process too far too quickly?
             In potential disaster diplomacy cases, three factors are needed: the peace initiative should be new due to the disaster, legitimate, and lasting. For both Aceh and Sri Lanka:
             1. The peace initiative is not new, but was revived, pushed along, catalyzed, and significantly shaped, helped, and developed by the disaster. In contrast to the Greece/Turkey and India/Pakistan cases, the spotlight appears to have overall helped rather than hindered the peace process, although many of the Aceh negotiations were (sensibly) conducted in secret.
             2. I think that the peace iniatives are legitimate from the Indonesian and Sri Lankan presidents, probably from GAM, and less clear from LTTE. All sides have significant opposition within their own institutions, with probably the least opposition within GAM. So legitimacy is mixed, but generally strong.
             3. We have yet to see whether or not it will be lasting.

  • Commentary by Firoz Verjee (24 August 2005):
             I would add a caveat to the three conditions in your commentary that the rapprochement after a disaster is not due to an outright exploitation of the vulnerability of affected populations. Your third condition, that the newfound peace be lasting, is related, but my concern is that if disaster diplomacy occurs out of desperation, it is bound to fail sooner or later. However, if a disaster creates an epiphany which pushes all parties to reconcile out of choice (versus need), it will have a better chance for success.

  • Tjhin, C.S. 2005 (October). Post Tsunami Reconstruction and Peace Building in Aceh: Political Impacts and Potential Risks, Working Paper Series 053, Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Jakarta, Indonesia.

  • Schulze, K.E. 2005 (November). Between Conflict and Peace: Tsunami Aid and Reconstruction in Aceh, London School of Economics, London, U.K.

  • 19 December 2005 GAM finishes giving up its weapons. BBC Coverage.

  • 27 December 2005 GAM's armed wing is officially disbanded. BBC Coverage.

  • Commentary by JC Gaillard (8 June 2006):
             Regarding the role of the tsunami in the Aceh peace process, according to representatives of the Aceh Monitoring Mission (AMM), talks between the Indonesian government and GAM leaders secretly started two days before the tsunami (on 24 Dec. 2004). AMM people themselves recognise that the disaster deeply influenced the rapidity and success of the peace process but it did not initiate it. So, I agree that disasters catalyse diplomacy rather create diplomacy.

  • 5 January 2006 Indonesia police complete their pull-out from Aceh. BBC Coverage.

  • 19 April 2006 Exiled GAM leaders visit Aceh. BBC Coverage.

  • Sukma, R. 2006. "Indonesia and the tsunami: responses and foreign policy implications", Australian Journal of International Affairs, vol. 60, no. 2, pp. 213-228.

  • 11 July 2006 Indonesia's parliament passes a bill increasing Aceh's autonomy. BBC Coverage.

  • Waizenegger, A. 2007 (February). "Armed Separatism and the 2004 Tsunami in Aceh", Canada Asia Commentary, no. 43, Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada, Vancouver, Canada.

  • Kelman and Gaillard (2007) publish an article in Humanitarian Exchange on disaster diplomacy in Aceh.

  • June 2007 John Kurien writes The gift of the tsunami (478 kb in PDF) which is then published in the Sunday Magazine of the Indian national newspaper The Hindu on 29 July 2007.

  • Gaillard et al. (2008) publish an article in Geoforum on disaster diplomacy in Aceh.

  • Waizenegger and Hyndman (2010) publish an article in Disasters on disaster diplomacy in Aceh.

  • Törnquist, O. 2011. "Dynamics of peace and democratization. The Aceh lessons". Democratization, vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 823-846.

  • Zeccola, P. 2011. "Dividing disasters in Aceh, Indonesia: separatist conflict and tsunami, human rights and humanitarianism". Disasters, vol. 35, no. 2, pp. 308-328.

  • Alles, P. 2012. "Depoliticizing Natural Disasters to Enhance Human Security in a Sovereignty-Based Context: Lessons from Aceh (2004) to Yangon (2008)". Chapter 8, pp. 157-172 in B.C.G. Teh (ed.), Human Security: Securing East Asia’s Future, Springer, Dordrecht, Germany.

Sri Lanka

  • Commentary by Ilan Kelman (9 January 2005):
             The bickering between the Sri Lankan government and the Tamil Tigers, Colombo's travel restrictions imposed on Kofi Annan, India's refusal of much foreign aid, continuing difficulties in Aceh, and Burma/Myanmar's reluctance to open up to foreign relief suggest that once again, disaster diplomacy runs into problems. In the end, a single disaster and the subsequent humanitarian imperative perhaps can rarely overcome years or generations of hatred, indoctrination, and repression backstopped by hypocrisies, inconsistencies, and selfishness from the governments now trying to embrace tsunami diplomacy. It is remarkable that so many people at such a high level, including Colin Powell, can pretend to be so naive as to think that delivering aid to disaster-hit people can deliver a country from antipathy that leads to violence.
             Longer-term effects are harder to gauge. As seen by the abysmal British and American governments' responses to the tsunami initially, people power can push governments where they do not wish to go. At the individual-to-individual level, disaster diplomacy can be a significant force for political change, even if the politicians and senior civil servants are narrow-minded and short-sighted. Such grassroots disaster diplomacy is hard to monitor and demonstrate, yet it might be the most long-lasting and significant achievement of tsunami diplomacy from the horror of 26 December 2004.

  • 12-13 August 2005 Sri Lanka's foreign minister is assassinated and a state of emergency is imposed. BBC Coverage.

  • 19 August 2005 Sri Lanka's government and the Tamil Tigers agree to hold high-level talks but continue wrangling into September regarding the venue.

  • 17 November 2005 Mahinda Rajapakse, promising to take a hardline with the Tamil Tigers and to re-negotiate the ceasefire, wins Sri Lanka's presidential election. BBC Coverage.

  • December 2005 to February 2006 Violence increases in Sri Lanka.

  • 2 April 2006 Mahinda Rajapakse's party wins overwhelmingly in local elections, endorsing his approach to peace talks. BBC Coverage.

  • June to August 2006 Fighting escalates between Tamil rebels and the Sri Lankan government. EU ceasefire monitors withdraw under pressure from the Tamil rebels.

  • Jayasinghe, N. 2006. Post-tsunami Sri Lanka and the Ethnic Conflict: A Critical Analysis of Vulnerability (352 kb in PDF), MSc Environment and Development Dissertation, London School of Economics, London, U.K.

  • Wickremesinghe, R. 2006. "Peace Process in Sri Lanka". South Asian Survey, vol. 13, no. 1, pp. 5-15.

  • Harris, S. 2006 (February). Disaster Response, Peace and Conflict in Post-Tsunami Sri Lanka. Part 1: The Congestion of Humanitarian Space. Centre for Conflict Resolution Working Paper 16, Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford, U.K.

  • Grewal, M.K. 2006 (November). Approaches to Equity in Post-Tsunami Assistance: Sri Lanka: A Case Study. Commissioned by the Office of the United Nations Special Envoy for Tsunami Recovery (OSE) and financed by the Department for International Development, the Government of the United Kingdom, London, and by the OSE.

  • McGilvray, D.B. 2006. "Tsunami and Civil War in Sri Lanka: An Anthropologist Confronts the Real World". India Review, vol. 5, no. 304, pp. 372-393.

  • Stokke, K. 2009. "Crafting Liberal Peace? International Peace Promotion and the Contextual Politics of Peace in Sri Lanka". Annals of the Association of American Geographers, vol. 99, no. 5, pp. 932-939.

  • Preitler, B. 2012. "When Disaster Strikes in Time of War: Traditional Healing and Psychosocial Training Help Divided Communities Mourn Together". International Journal of Applied Psychoanalytic Studies, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 233-248.

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