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Ethnicity, politics and inequality: post-
tsunami humanitarian aid delivery in
Ampara District, Sri Lanka

M.W. Amarasiri de Silva Professor, Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts,
University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka

The provision of humanitarian aid at times of disaster in multi-ethnic community settings may
lead to conflict, tension and even the widening of the distance between various ethnic groups. That
aid agencies distribute humanitarian aid directly to affected communities, to speed up recovery,
may often lead to chaos and the intensification of ethnic sentiments. The new distribution mech-
anisms introduced for the delivery of tsunami aid in Ampara District, Sri Lanka, did not recognise
local networks and the culture of the ethnically mixed community setting. This paper analyses
post-tsunami aid distribution in Ampara and shows how such an extemporised effort in an
ethnically cognisant context increased ethnic division, inequality and disorder, while marginalis-
ing the poor segments of the affected population. It recommends the inclusion of local networks in
aid dissemination as a measure for improving ethnic neutrality and social harmony in disaster-hit
multi-ethnic communities.

Keywords: Ampara District, Asian tsunami, ethnicity, humanitarian aid, Sri Lanka

The Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004 is viewed overall as a tragedy that
did not recognise ‘culturally derived discriminations and social distinctions’ (Fritz,
1961, p. 685). Due to the enormity of the catastrophe, various groups—rich and poor,
Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims, and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and
the forces of the Government of Sri Lanka (GoSL)—were suffering the ramifications
in the immediate aftermath.
In Ampara District on the east coast of Sri Lanka, however, the picture is somewhat
different. The theory that the effects of disasters are indiscriminate proved misplaced
here, since the people most affected largely comprised those on the lower rungs of the
social ladder and in certain ethnically identifiable communities. Disasters are seen
as ‘products’ of the economic, political and social environment and of the natural
events that cause them. Poor people are most likely to be the victims of disasters in
developing countries in particular (Blaikie et al., 1994; Peacock and Girard, 1997).
Such social groups often consist of ethnic minorities and excluded communities.
Ethnicity is thus an important index of increased vulnerability to disasters in devel­
oping countries (Aptekar and Boore, 1990; Enarson, 1998; Peacock and Girard, 1997;
Bates and Peacock, 1993; Peacock and Ragsdale, 1997).


Disasters, 2009, 33(2): 253−273. © 2009 The Author(s). Journal compilation © Overseas Development Institute, 2009.
Published by Blackwell Publishing, 9600 Garsington Road, Oxford, OX4 2DQ, UK and 350 Main Street, Malden, MA 02148, USA

M.W. Amarasiri de Silva254

In ethnically mixed communities, the distribution of economic and political power
has implications for coping with disaster­based vulnerabilities (Fothergill, Maestas
and Darlington, 1999). Disaster vulnerability among racial and ethnic minority com­
munities has reportedly increased in the recent past (Anderson, 1996; Peacock and
Girard, 1997). Significant differences in risk perception among different ethnic groups
vis­à­vis disaster events have been reported (Ives and Furseth, 1983); and different
consequences of hazards for ethnic minorities have been highlighted (Hutton, 1976;
Bates et al., 1963).
In terms of fatalities and other effects of the tsunami, the poor Muslim commu­
nities in the coastal areas of Ampara suffered particularly badly. Rates of mortality,
morbidity and damage to property were extremely high among the politically less
powerful Muslims in the coastal areas of Ampara compared to those of the Sinhalese
and the Tamils. Locations most seriously affected on the east coast were those inhabited
by the Muslims. Lower middle­class families in the affected ethnic minority commu­
nities were less likely to attract subsidies and assistance, a fact observed elsewhere as
well (Aptekar and Boore, 1990).
The unequal impact of the tsunami may have been precipitated by the fact that
the Muslims lived along the coast, and the majority of them were involved in the
fishing industry. The congested housing settlements of the Muslims may have been
a factor in the higher levels of mortality and morbidity, as well as physical damage.
That ethnic minorities on the east coast live in segregation, in ribbon­like discrete
communities, and that, for historical reasons, Muslims in particular reside in less
prestigious, low­lying places, hemmed in between the lagoon and the sea, might have
heightened their vulnerability to the 2004 tsunami.
In the process of recovery, cultural boundaries have been reinvented and culture­
based discrimination has resumed. During this process, some people and community
groups sought advantages while others were deprived of benefits and opportunities
for recovery. Despite the indiscriminate effects of disasters, it is generally recognised
that disaster risk and vulnerability are not equally distributed, particularly in the
recovery stage. Thus, the recovery process is seen as sensitive to ethnicity and social
stratifications, especially those that emerge post disaster (Couch and Kroll­Smith,
1985; Fordham, 1999; Morrow, 1997).
This paper argues that ethnicity has become the organising principle in the post­
tsunami humanitarian aid distribution process in Ampara. Ethno­political relation­
ships that existed in the pre­tsunami era in the District, particularly between Muslims
and Tamils, were further ethnicised and intensified in the process. The disadvan­
taged and vulnerable communities affected by the tsunami along the coast of Ampara,
largely comprising poor Muslim fisher folk, were deprived of the benefits of humani­
tarian aid. Creating highly centralised, elite­run mechanisms for the distribution of
humanitarian aid in such multi­ethnic settings led to a widening of the ethnic divide,
increasing inequalities and chaos, and thereby making the poor and the marginal­
ised communities even poorer and more marginalised. As a prelude to the analysis, the
paper first contextualises tsunami­affected areas in their socio­economic setting in
Ampara District.

Ethnicity, politics and inequality 255

Ampara District in the Eastern Province
Ampara District in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka, where the research was con­
ducted between March and June 2006, covers an area of 4,431 square kilometres and
has a population of 635,332. Muslims (41.59 per cent), Sinhalese (39.33 per cent) and
Tamils (18.76 per cent) constitute the major communities in the District. Of the 20
District Secretariat (DS) divisions in Ampara, the tsunami affected 10 along the
coastal belt. Muslims predominantly inhabit most of these. The main livelihood in
these divisions is fisheries, while paddy production is the main activity of the District
as a whole.
Muslims and Tamils live in juxtaposed, but discrete communities, spread along
the coastal belt from south to north. Although the two communities maintain eco­
nomic exchange and trade links, mutual trust between Muslims and Tamils has been
eroded since the 1980s due to a heightening of political activities. As in Muslim
villages in Trincomalee (Korf, 2004), the Muslim fisher folk here are caught up in
the power struggle between the GoSL forces and the LTTE, which has diminished
their ability to fish in the deep seas. Despite cultural and lingual similarities, includ­
ing matrilocality and practising of the kudi system of inheritance and naming (Yalman,
1967; McGilvray, 1982), the Muslims and Tamils of Ampara view themselves as
separate ethnic groups, different from one another. Cultic worship of Kannaki and
Mari Amman makes the Eastern Tamils unique. They also view themselves as distinct
from the Tamils and Muslims living in the rest of Sri Lanka. The March 2004 break­
away of Colonel Karuna or Karuna Amman, the leader of the eastern faction of the
LTTE, further reflects the ethnic distinctiveness and identity of the Eastern Tamils.
In the past, the Eastern Province was regarded as under the control of the Jaffna
Tamils, who often held important positions in administration and local govern­
ment. Over the past two decades, Muslim political leaders in particular have pushed
for a stronger Muslim identity and have been instrumental in setting up ethnically
segregated governance and welfare structures in Ampara. A situation has gradually
evolved in which both Tamils and Muslims in the Eastern Districts are seeking
greater political and administrative independence.
The Sinhalese communities, located in the interior and in the southern tip of the
District, are not in direct confrontation with any of the other ethnic groups in the
tsunami­affected areas of Ampara District. GoSL forces and the LTTE operate
within their own territories, which were demarcated more or less in the years after
the ceasefire agreement of 2002, with minimal trespass on either side at the time of
the author’s fieldwork (March–June 2006).1

Ongoing power politics in the country influence the political set­up of the District.
The pre­tsunami situation was that the Tamils (predominantly the LTTE) and the
Muslims had political problems associated with land­related matters. Both Muslim
and Tamil traders were subject to harassment and taxation by militant groups, includ­
ing the LTTE. Riots involving Muslims and Tamils have occurred since the 1990s
(Goodhand and Lewer, 1999). Muslim villagers in the Northern Districts were
expelled by the LTTE at the beginning of its struggle for a Tamil homeland or Eelam

M.W. Amarasiri de Silva256

Map 1 Grama Niladhari (GN) Divisions in Ampara District affected by the 2004 tsunami

Source: Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka.

(in the 1990s), and this affected mutual trust and relations between these two ethnic
communities in the Eastern Province. Competition for political power and economic
resources, including land, between Tamils and Muslims in Ampara shows the deep
mistrust between them, although they were neighbours who lived in adjacent com­
munities and engaged in trade and economic activities at the time of the tsunami. It
is into this ethnically sensitive context that the tsunami entered on 26 December 2004.

Ethnicity, politics and inequality 257

Tsunami recovery politics and actors
The territorial demarcations and political barriers that existed before the tsunami
between the GoSL forces and the LTTE, and between the Tamils and the Muslims,
were relaxed in the immediate wake of the tsunami, when both the GoSL forces
and the LTTE commenced relief and welfare work for the people. In this environ­
ment, civil society organisations were at ease in providing for tsunami recovery
through existing local networks (Frerks and Klem, 2005). The new development in
the Eastern Districts, particularly in Ampara, was seen as a precursor to a renewed
peace process. These local non­governmental organisation (NGO) and civil society
initiatives (Rodriguez et al., 2006) were viewed as a sign of good things to come after
the tsunami.
It was in this context that the GoSL introduced an institutional arrangement for
tsunami recovery and the reconstruction of the affected communities: the Post­
Tsunami Operational Management Structure (P­TOMS). P­TOMS was the regula­
tory outcome of the Joint Mechanism on Tsunami Aid Distribution, signed between
the GoSL and high­level LTTE politicians on 24 June 2005. P­TOMS, as proposed,
was to operate within a limited area of two kilometres from the coastline, in the six
Districts of Ampara, Batticaloa, Jaffna, Kilinochchi, Mullaitivu and Trincomalee
(Asian Tribune, 2005). Under this structure, there was no place for the civil society
organisations that had played a key role in the early tsunami recovery process (von
Braunmühl et al., 2006).
Following the signing of the agreement, there were major demonstrations organ­
ised by predominantly Sinhala political parties—the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna
(JVP) and Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU)—and by the Muslim political parties (Pirani
and Kadirgamar, 2006). The protest leaders questioned the legitimacy of P­TOMS
and its control over resources. The JVP left the GoSL coalition as a result. The massive
opposition culminated in a hunger strike or fast­unto­death by Dr Omalpe Sobhita,
a prominent member of the Buddhist clergy and a member of the JHU, which was
called off only after then President Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga pledged
to discuss the agreement with Buddhist prelates before it was put into effect. The
four Maha Nayaka Theros2 of the Amarapura, Asgiriya, Malwatte and Ramanya chap­
ters gathered to issue a Sangha Agna (command) and to summon a mass gathering
to object to the signing of the Joint Mechanism between the GoSL and the LTTE
(, 2005).
The Supreme Court of Sri Lanka ruled out certain clauses of the accord, and this
proved to be the final nail in the coffin of P­TOMS. The LTTE later reneged on
the P­TOMS agreement, saying that it would ‘refuse to work under any authority
under the Sri Lankan government . . .’ (Asian Tribune, 2005). The LTTE’s rejection
of a coordinated approach to tsunami recovery may have been induced by the notion
that economic prosperity in the region would hamper its struggle for Eelam.
The impact of the failed P­TOMS agreement reverberates to the present day in
tsunami­affected Ampara District. The political manoeuvring surrounding this accord
reinforced the importance of ethno­geopolitical identities and the internationalisation

M.W. Amarasiri de Silva258

of the tsunami recovery process (Pirani and Kadirgamar, 2006; Goodhand and Klem,
2005). The new aid delivery process created afterwards involved various GoSL depart­
ments, the Government Agent of the District, the GoSL forces, especially the Special
Task Force (STF), and the LTTE, including the Tamil Rehabilitation Organisation
(TRO). The various civil society organisations that were engaged in the recovery pro­
cess at the beginning were not included as key agents in the aid delivery process. It is
unfortunate that the macro players, who took part in P­TOMS and later in tsunami
aid delivery, did not pay attention to those civil society actors and did nothing to utilise
participatory experience of recovery and reconstruction efforts in Ampara District.
The attempt by the GoSL to establish P­TOMS is viewed here as the product of
a misreading of the emerging cooperation among divergent civil society groups and
local political organisations following the materialisation of a burgeoning partner­
ship between the GoSL and the LTTE. Not only did the direct intervention of the
GoSL, international NGOs and macro political parties impede the opportunity to
create local participatory methodologies for post­tsunami reconstruction, but also
the efforts that developed at the community level were nipped in the bud by the fail­
ure to support them.
Sixty­four international NGOs in Ampara that were distributing tsunami aid
formed the Ampara District Livelihood Coordination Committee (or the Consortium
for Livelihood Coordination as it is popularly known) in 2006 under the leadership
of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA),
the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and similar lead agencies.
This Consortium was set up to counteract the GoSL’s inability to develop a coor­
dinated humanitarian aid structure in the District. Here, too, local NGOs and
community­based organisations were regarded as unimportant, and they did not
participate in the meetings. As one local NGO activist3 noted, ‘they operate in
English and conduct their meetings in Ampara town far away from the coastal areas.
We are not important for them . . . we do not take part in this group’. Local NGOs
have found it difficult to make their programmes effective as their clientele is now
communally driven and preoccupied with various forms of assistance provided by
the international NGOs. Ultimately, macro actors, such as the Ministry of Relief,
Rehabilitation and Reconstruction (RRR Ministry), and the departments within
it, P­TOMS, the LTTE, and the international NGOs, replaced the bodies that took
an active interest in the early tsunami recovery process.
Due to their failure to include local networks, the aid agencies from outside did
not have a ground­level mechanism for aid distribution. The affected people lived
in their natural groups of kith and kin in camps, and this was misread as ethnic
segregation and concentration. Aid distribution was organised by the international
NGOs and other aid agencies according to those ethnically segregated camps and
villages, and this became the new organising principle for delivering aid. The aid
agencies were identified with the ethnicity of the camp inmates. As a result, partici­
pation and cooperation on the part of affected communities developed an ethnic
strand, and grew into renewed competition among ethnic groups for tsunami aid.

Ethnicity, politics and inequality 259

The ethnocentric political ideology of the new participating agencies, particularly the
GoSL forces, the LTTE, TRO and some international NGOs, provided the leader­
ship for this competition.

The study’s focus and methodology
This paper examines how new developments in the humanitarian aid distribution
process have led to a widening of the ethnic divide and increased inequality in
Ampara District, with fisheries and housing serving as particular examples. In doing
so, the study focuses on how tsunami aid has reached the affected populations, and
assesses whether the aid distribution programmes were able to provide for margin­
alised people, including the poor, vulnerable and backward communities. These
aspects are appraised in the context of the multi­directional, complex relationship
system that developed around tsunami aid distribution in Ampara.
The data for this exploratory study were collected through interviews, observa­
tions, focus group discussions and case studies. Thirty­five interviews were held
between March and June 2006 with tsunami­affected people, beneficiaries of tsu­
nami aid, the agencies supplying aid, key informants in the communities, political
leaders, and members of the armed forces. The District Livelihood Coordination
Committee of Ampara4 was a useful source. In addition, fisheries cooperative socie­
ties offered valuable information. The armed forces in Ampara furnished additional
information on incidents reported by the interviewees. However, the author was un­
able to verify any of the contents of this paper with the LTTE and the TRO.
Initially, the aid agencies were pinpointed through a list produced by the Humani­
tarian Information Centre, Ampara (HIC, 2005) and the Consortium for Humani tarian
Agencies–Ampara (CHA­Ampara), which was later verified by talking to officials
from international NGOs, UNDP and the Food and Agriculture Organization of
the United Nations (FAO) in Ampara. Secondary information obtained through aid
agencies and the media was helpful in comprehending the context. The triangulations
employed in the study helped to establish the authenticity, validity and reproducibility
of the data.

Post-tsunami ethnic polarisation in Ampara
During the post­tsunami reconstruction process, ethnic polarities resurfaced and
intensified among the Muslim and Tamil communities of Ampara, partly due to the
failure of P­TOMS, poor recognition of local networks, and the exclusion of local
communities from the decision­making and implementation dimensions of the aid
delivery system. An upsurge in violence and the augmentation of ethnic segregation
in Ampara were the results. Tsunami aid delivery thus became a political process in
which the GoSL, the LTTE, Muslim political leaders, and international NGOs played
the main role. The Muslim community in Ampara felt dejected because it was not

M.W. Amarasiri de Silva260

granted adequate power and representation in the proposed structure. What is more,
it criticised the GoSL for giving ‘undue’ power to the LTTE in the Joint Mechanism,
despite the fact that the Muslims were the largest affected community in the East.
Muslim leaders expressed their dismay and anger over not being made a signatory to
the proposed P­TOMS (Rhodes, 2005).
Disagreements over the proposed institutional set­up for joint post­tsunami recon­
struction among the GoSL, the LTTE, and the Muslim community permeated down
to the local activities and politics of the District. Such variance was interpreted as
reflecting ethnic differences and discrimination at the local level. The distribution
of relief and the creation of camps occurred along ethnic lines, reinforcing ethno­
geographic boundaries. Many incidents of ethnic rivalry were reported afterwards,
including separate hartals5 staged by Muslims and Tamils, highlighting the promi­
nent position of ethnic politics in post­tsunami aid distribution. These had a negative
effect on the aid delivery system and heightened mistrust between the communities.
A series of violent events occurred two months after the tsunami, including:

• the killing of three Muslim men and the destruction of Tamil barbershops in

• the killing of five Muslims during the Drawpadi Amman Kovil festival and their
interment in Tamil burial grounds as an insult to the Muslims; and

• the killing of a number of Tamils returning from the festival in retaliation.

President Kumaratunga came under pressure and was forced to appoint a com­
mission in February 2005 to investigate the murders.
The organisation of welfare camps on ethnic lines provided the basis for various
aid agencies to select communities on ethnic grounds. The people, Muslims and
Tamils alike, described the aid agencies that supplied assistance as ethnically biased,
and viewed these interventions as partial, undemocratic, wasteful, and not needs­
Such procedures have enhanced ethnic resentment and division between the
Muslims and Tamils, and have given an ethno­political colouring to tsunami aid
distribution. Eventually, there were more and more instances of aid agencies work­
ing for and among their own communities in the District, resulting in further
distancing between the communities. Muslim politicians have extensively utilised
the fact that Muslims were discriminated against for their own political gain, further
aggravating ethnic consciousness. One respondent said that, ‘Muslim Congress poli­
ticians headed by the minister . . . promised houses when they win the election and
wanted us to vote for them in the election’.6

Ethnic distancing and segregation became apparent in the ethnic concentration
of aid packaging especially that organised by the Muslims in Colombo and outside,
which was a reaction to the failure of GoSL organisations and international NGOs
to meet the needs of the Muslim communities. Jamathe-e-Islami and the Muslim
Relief Foundation helped the Muslims in the area after the tsunami. The Colombo
Mamen Society (Mamen Sangam) supported the Muslim Baithul Tsunami (Tsunami

Ethnicity, politics and inequality 261

Fund) in Marathamunai. The Government of the United Arab Emirates pledged to
build a new town, comprising 800 houses and modern amenities, for tsunami­affected
people in Kalmunai. Similarly, the Government of Turkey pledged funds for hous­
ing programmes in tsunami­affected Muslim areas. The United States Agency for
International Development (USAID) has helped the Peace Secretariat for the Muslims
(PSM).7 The PSM established regional centres in predominantly Muslim areas and
assisted poor Muslim people in the communities with redressing their grievances, with
support from USAID (USAID, 2008).
Many economic interactions between Muslims and Tamils used to take place in
relation to land, but now it has become a politically sensitive resource, generating
competition between the two ethnic groups. The competition is so intense that the
LTTE has forbidden Muslims from building houses on land located in Muslim
areas. Land­related ethnic distancing has been a factor behind the marginalisation
of communities such as the fisher folk. They have been deprived of the right to
their own land because of the GoSL’s policy that prohibits any form of construction
within 65 metres of the sea, and the LTTE’s claim to all land suitable for construc­
tion in Eastern Province.
Ethnic orientation and distancing in tsunami aid distribution worsened over time,
because the participating agencies in the aid delivery system took decisions and
worked spontaneously, without being subject to any central coordination. Owing
to this lack of coordination (Stirrat, 2006), the agencies were driven by emotional
attachments to their ethnic communities rather than by the needs of the affected
people. As stated by the interviewees, the TRO started diverting aid, transported
in trucks, to the North and the Tamil areas and distributing it only to Tamils in
refugee camps. The presence of the TRO in the GoSL­controlled areas was a result
of the Joint Mechanism, which introduced national politics to the local scenario of
Ampara District. The intervention by the GoSL army and the STF in aid delivery
was the result, leading to fights between the LTTE and GoSL forces over the distri­
bution of aid. The TRO was allowed to maintain its offices in the camps because of
the Joint Mechanism and the need to coordinate relief work. Poor coordination and
deviations from a commonly agreed agenda between the TRO and STF finally led
to the elimination of the TRO from the refugee camps in Ampara. The STF inter­
vened and eventually assumed sole authority for the distribution of humanitarian
aid in the refugee camps. Instead of facilitating the aid distribution process, the pres­
ence of the TRO generated fear and discontent, particularly among Tamil refugees,
as occurrences of child recruitment increased during the post­tsunami recovery pro­
cess (Kautzky, 2005; Becker, 2005; Hindustan Times, 2005).
An incident reported at the time of the fieldwork for this paper, which exacerbated
tension between the Muslims and the LTTE, was the decree issued by the LTTE
on 16 April 2006 in which it stated that all females should refrain from any form of
employment in the NGO sector (TW News, 2006). This order was issued after a
case of abortion, alleged adult filmmaking by an unspecified NGO, involving female
employees, and the selling of such Digital Versatile Discs (DVDs) in the area.8 The

M.W. Amarasiri de Silva262

LTTE viewed these events as detrimental to the culture of the Tamils (TW News,
2006). This had an effect on Muslims in Ampara because a large number of female
Muslims, who had had to abandon their jobs because of the tsunami, were working
in the NGO sector that sprung up in the aftermath of the disaster. Muslims, as well
as ordinary Tamils, criticised the LTTE for prohibiting females from working with
NGOs, as they have lost income.
There was a spate of killings and abductions of people from all communities in the
post­tsunami environment, which also affected tsunami relief management at the
local level in the District. The killing of the Director of the Vocational Training
Centre (Ministry of Agriculture Marketing Development), Mr T. Kailanathan, a Tamil,
on 4 April 2005, and the fatal shooting of the Divisional Secretary of Thirukkovil,
Mr T. Thavaraja, another Tamil, on 15 April 2005, in Vinayagapura, Thirukkovil,
were seen as protests against Tamils working with tsunami aid delivery programmes
(GoSL, 2006; UTHR (J), 2005).
The power struggle between the GoSL and the LTTE over the post­tsunami
resource (aid is seen as a resource) distribution system in the east has terrified the
affected people, who could not effectively participate in the aid distribution pro cess.
The instigation of the LTTE ban on the provision of land to Muslims for house
construction was a Machiavellian move to undermine the aid delivery process of
the GoSL and the local and international NGO sectors. The ethnic distance between
Muslims and Tamils in Eastern Province was further widened as a result. According
to a Tamil trader from Kalmunai:

although Marathamunai is a predominantly Muslim area, the Tamils used to come there
before the Kovil ceremony, to a land belonging to the Kovil, to collect poovarasu [Thespesia
populnea] trees for the ceremony. This time when they came to collect the trees, there was
tension and fights between the local Muslims and the Tamil visitors because of the current

The Muslims questioned the political power of the Tamils in the Eastern Province
in the wake of the tsunami, due to the revived tension between the two communities.
A Muslim politician from Eastern Province pointed out that:

the LTTE is interested in the land in the Northeast and is asking for more Pradeshiya
Sabha10 Council areas for them. The Tamils are only 19 per cent of the total population in
the Eastern Province, but have four Pradeshiya Sabha, namely Thirukkovil, Alayadi-
wembu, Karative and Navadanveli. They are asking for a fifth one, which includes
Pothuvil and Komari. The Government also gave them a separate Pradeshiya Sabha in
Valachchena bordering Polonnaruwa. Out of the 13 Pradeshiya Sabha in the North East,
the Muslims have only seven’.11

Thus, the tsunami provided a stage for the Muslims and Tamils (the LTTE) to im­
peril further their already endangered ethnic relationship. It also enabled the GoSL
to demonstrate its power and control over the resources that emerged after the event.

Ethnicity, politics and inequality 263

These developments undermined the democratic process of aid distribution, caus­
ing delays, neglect and the exclusion of communities that were in need of aid at a
time when such assistance was in urgent demand. The next sections examine these
issues in relation to the provision of housing and fisheries aid to communities in
Ampara District.

Housing programmes for tsunami-affected
people in Ampara
Tsunami­affected families in Muslim settlements along the coast are deprived of land
for housing for two reasons:

• First, the GoSL has declared that land within 65 metres of the sea is unsafe for
living due to possible seismic effects, and people are thus prohibited from engag­
ing in any construction in that beach area. This land strip is the traditional living
area of the Muslims, particularly the fisher folk. Those families that lived along
the narrow beach strip have not been offered alternative land or adequate com­
pensation to buy land outside of the 65­metre zone.

• Second, the LTTE has prohibited Muslims from building houses on land purchased
for them by outside agencies, on the pretext that it belongs to the Tamils.

These two aspects are analysed below.
The GoSL established several institutions as a response strategy for post­tsunami
recovery after the failure of P­TOMS. The Task Force for Rebuilding the Nation
(TAFREN), the Task Force for Relief (TAFOR) and the Tsunami Housing Recon­
struction Unit (THRU) were the lead agencies created through processes involving
private and public sector participation. In November 2005, following the election of
President Mahinda Rajapaksa, the Reconstruction and Development Agency (RADA)
was set up. This became an authority with executive powers following parliamen­
tary ratification of the RADA Act in 2006. RADA’s mandate is to accelerate recon­
struction and development activities in the affected areas, functionally replacing all
the tsunami organisations, as well as a significant part of the former RRR Ministry.
According to RADA, the total number of houses built so far (as of May 2006)
in Ampara is 629, while total housing units pledged is 6,169. At the time of the
research (March to June 2006), none of the housing projects completed is in a pre­
dominantly Muslim area.
Payment of compensation for damaged houses was not based on a consistent scheme.
As a result, some families received large sums, while others did not get any money.
In some instances, those who collected compensation were not the affected families.
The Auditor General, Mr S.C. Mayadunne, noted that:

Payment of an excessive amount even for minor damages due to the payments being made
without assessing the cost of restoring the houses to normal condition. (For example, Rs.

M.W. Amarasiri de Silva264

100,000 had been paid for minor damages of Rs. 10,000) … Payments made without
identifying the value of the damaged houses, thus resulting in heavy expenditure by the
Government. (For example, a sum of Rs. 250,000 had been paid for the total destruction
of a temporary house valued at Rs. 10,000) (Mayadunne, 2005, p. 8).

That compensation was not paid according to an acceptable scheme led to agitation
among the affected people, and provided an opportunity for political manipulation.
The LTTE and the TRO requested direct provision of aid for reconstruction work
in LTTE­controlled areas. The poor response of the GoSL to this demand was inter­
preted as indifference on its part towards ethnic minorities in Ampara. Meanwhile,
the GoSL provided direct support for tsunami­affected communities in southern Sri
Lanka, where the majority were Sinhalese, strengthening this allegation.
Land scarcity in tsunami­affected Ampara and disputes over landownership in the
area were the main reasons for not completing the housing programmes. The LTTE
contended that the land identified for building houses by the GoSL, or purchased by
civil society organisations for constructing such houses, belongs to the Tamils, an ideol­
ogy based on ‘a myth of their own, a Tamil hereditary Homeland—paarampariyamaana
taayakam’ (Peebles, 1990, p. 41). Consequently, housing programmes could not be
The land question in the Eastern Province has a history that dates back to 1951,
when the Gal Oya Colonisation scheme was established. According to the minor­
ity version of this history, the colonists were selected overwhelmingly from among
the Sinhalese rather than the Muslims and Tamils, who were a majority in Ampara
at that time, and, as a result, the ethnic balance of Ampara District was disrupted
(Hasbullah, Balasundarampillai and Silva, 2005). Conversely, B.H. Farmer reported
in 1957 that Tamils, especially Jaffna Tamils, were ‘chary’ and did not have a ‘tradi­
tion of migration’, which was the apparent reason for less Tamil representation among
the colonists of Gal Oya. According to Farmer, up to 31 December 1953, between
five and 16 per cent of the colonists were chosen from the Districts of Batticaloa,
Jaffna and Trincomalee, which were predominantly Tamil (Farmer, 1957, Table 20,
p. 209). Contradictory evidence (with a political colouring following the recent rise
of ethnicity in this discourse) reports that 100,000 acres of agricultural land in the
East have been ‘illegally transferred from Muslims to the Tamils’ since the 1990s
(Hasbullah, Balasundarampillai and Silva, 2005). The Tamils, however, believe that
the land in the Eastern Province is part and parcel of the Tamil Homeland. This
new political ideology of landownership that has emerged in the present­day ethno­
political context of the Eastern Province has intensified land (re)claiming in Ampara
by Muslims and Tamils.
According to Tamil discourse, the increase in the value of land in Ampara over the
past two decades has led to rich Muslims purchasing land belonging to poor Tamils,
resulting in ethnic homogenisation in the coastal areas of the District in favour of
the Muslims. ‘Violence against Tamils was also used in some areas to push out the
numerically small Tamil service caste communities’ (Hasbullah, Balasundarampillai

Ethnicity, politics and inequality 265

and Silva, 2005, p. 37). In a situation with an ideological history of land disputes, find­
ing new land for the construction of houses for Muslim communities affected by the
tsunami poses a challenge.
In the face of this challenge, Muslims in Ampara sought assistance from Muslim
politicians and organisations that willingly came forward to assist them. The efforts
made by these politicians and civil society organisations to erect houses for tsunami­
affected Muslim families were forcibly curtailed by the LTTE. Consequently, a pro­
posed housing programme for Muslims in Kinnayady Kiramam in Kaththankudi was
abandoned in 2005. Development of the four acres of land bought by the Memon Sangam
in Colombo for tsunami victims of Makbooliya in Marathamunai was pro hibited in
2005. Similar occurrences have been reported in Marathamunai Medduvedday. Mrs
Ferial Ashraff,12 Minister of Housing and Common Amenities wanted to build houses
in Marathamunai, Periyaneelavanai DS division (Addaippallam), the Pandirippu
Muslim area, and in Oluvil–Palamunai, but the LTTE proscribed all such initiatives.
The Islamabad housing scheme in Kalmunai Muslim DS division, and the construc­
tion of houses by Muslim individuals in Karaithivu, were banned and threats issued
by the LTTE and a Tamil military organisation called Ellai Padai (Boundary Forces).
Because the GoSL and the intervening agencies were unable to resolve the hous­
ing problem, the affected communities became disillusioned with and lost confidence
in the GoSL departments, aid agencies and international NGOs. Much effort and
many resources were wasted in finding land and designing housing programmes
that have not materialised. Some funds pledged by outside agencies were not forth­
coming, to the detriment of poor families. Attempts to provide housing for the
tsunami­affected people in Ampara District show how powerless they are in the face
of LTTE threats and the power politics of the participating agencies.
With regard to housing and land issues, the people of Ampara have resorted to
two mechanisms to address their problems. First, in certain cases, they have come
to a compromise with the LTTE: once a housing project is complete, a percentage
of it is to be allocated to the Tamil community under the aegis of the LTTE. In the
Islamabad housing programme, for example, this tactic proved successful, and at
the time of the research (March–June 2006), it was half­complete. Similarly, a hous­
ing scheme in Ninthavur reached a similar compromise with the LTTE. According
to Mr Mohamed Mansoor, the President of the Centre for East Lanka Social Service:

22 of the 100 houses once completed would be handed over to the Tamil community. This
figure has been identified as rational because 80 per cent of the land in that area is owned
by the Muslims and 20 per cent by the Tamils.13

At the time of this author’s fieldwork, approximately 30 houses had been completed
on this site.
The second mechanism adopted by the people is to build houses in the location
where they used to live before the tsunami, even though construction is prohibited in
the area, as it is within 65 metres of the sea. Muslims in Marathamunai, knowing that
they would not be receiving any land for housing, have sought funds from organisations

M.W. Amarasiri de Silva266

such as the Eastern Human Economic Development to erect houses where they
resided before the tsunami. The people affected have also tried to persuade their
leaders to approach the TRO and the LTTE to pay back the money that Muslim
people and organisations have borrowed to purchase land. The four­acre plot that
the Memon Society bought for the construction of houses was thus sold to a Tamil
organisation for Rs. 1,000,000 (approximately USD 10,000).
The national political forces operating in Ampara have deprived the poor fisher
folk of their right to land and to build houses in their own villages. These commu­
nities have resorted to various non­violent strategies, involving both acceptance of
the status quo without questioning it and fighting for their rights. The passivity
among the poor affected families is a result of them not having representation in the
civil society organisations in the area. These bodies are run by elites, which do not
wish to contest GoSL rule of a 65­metre buffer zone, or LTTE land claims. The
tsunami not only washed away the houses and took the land of the poor communi­
ties that lived by the sea, but also it has made them even poorer, more marginalised
and more ethnically segregated.

Fisheries and aid distribution
Fishing is the primary occupation of those hit by the tsunami in Ampara District.
The estimated number of households affected by the tsunami in Ampara is 20,000,
of which 80–90 per cent was engaged in jobs associated with fishing, the majority
being Muslim. Aid for reconstruction work in the Eastern Province largely concen­
trated on the fisheries sector. Up to February 2006, the total sum pledged for the
redevelopment of the fisheries sector in Sri Lanka was USD 99,701,128. The amount
committed as of that date was USD 62,871,817 (63 per cent of the total pledged)
(Amarasinghe, 2005). The money has been spent on distributing new fishing ves­
sels and fishing equipment, including nets and engines, the repair of damaged craft
and gear, and the provision, inter alia, of new harbour facilities and cool rooms.
The supply of vessels was, however, limited to 3.5­ton boats, outboard motor engines,
small plastic boats, traditional vallam (karaval thony) canoes used for beach seine fish­
ing (madal or karaval), and traditional outrigger canoes employed in deep­sea fishing.
Multi­day trawlers were not provided to the fishermen as they would have involved
longer stays at sea and fishing in international waters, which the armed forces con­
sidered to be security threats.
FAO data show that the provision of fishing craft and equipment exceeds the
amount required in the Province, and the Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources
(MFAR) and the Department of Fisheries (DFAR) fear that over­fishing will result
in the depletion of fish stocks in the offshore area. MFAR noted in particular that
the provision of small fishing craft has exceeded the number lost in the tsunami.14
Yet, despite the quantities of issued craft and gear exceeding what was lost, a ma­
jority of needy fishermen were not supplied with fishing equipment. Apparently, 54
per cent of those who received such assistance were not fishermen.15 Islamic Relief,

Ethnicity, politics and inequality 267

an international NGO, said that it had witnessed poor selection of beneficiaries in
the field, and that in one instance, it had found more than 30 boats in the backyard
of one house. In addition, MFAR pointed out that:

there is a large number of new boats lying on beaches which are inactive due to a lack of
engines and or gear or due to the fact that they are owned by those who had not been
involved in fishing previously. Fishermen complained that fishery inputs were distrib-
uted unequally. It was found that boats, engines and fishing gear are being sold by the
recipients . . . and that boats are still being provided by NGOs without coordinating with
MFAR and DFAR.16

Deacon Brother Huxley Siriwadene, the Director of Digamadulla YMCA, New
Town, Ampara, was appointed to investigate malpractice in post­tsunami fisheries
aid distribution in Ampara District. Mr Siriwadene emphasised that many of those
affected were reluctant to report cases for fear of reprisal.
According to Mr Udeni Janasiri, a member of the Fishermen’s Cooperative of
Panama, membership of this society increased from 300 before the tsunami to nearly
415 after the event because of the need to register to qualify for aid, indicating that
newly registered persons were not genuine or traditional fishermen. Mr Janasiri
highlighted that:

The new membership in the cooperative is political henchmen. They are not genuine,
practising fishermen. They have registered purely to obtain boats and nets. They sell
them afterwards.17

Several fishermen explained that they did not register with a fisheries cooperative
before the tsunami because there was no need to do so then. Registration became
an important criterion for qualifying for fishing aid after the tsunami, and therefore,
they had to pay (or bribe) fisheries inspectors to register with such societies
It has been revealed, furthermore, that the fishing craft distributed were not built
to appropriate standards:

The survey found that 18.9 per cent of the new boats provided to tsunami-affected fishers
are non-seaworthy. This would amount to 2,493 out of the 13,190 delivered and approxi-
mately 1,150 boats out of the 6,067 with genuine beneficiaries are non-seaworthy.18

Moreover, it was found that 17–18 per cent of outboard engines were repaired
unsatisfactorily. Around 60 per cent of the fishing vessels that were replaced were
not supplied with nets and other equipment.
The actual practising fishermen who were deprived of aid have resorted to various
measures as adaptive strategies. Some have given up fishing and are now involved
in other activities, such as petty trade, while some use the sub­standard boats pro­
vided to them for sand mining. The fishermen who had to pay a large sum as an
initial payment for the fishing boats have mortgaged them to absentee entrepreneurs

M.W. Amarasiri de Silva268

(Mudalalis), because they could not pay the interest on loans, and they could not
settle the balance. They work as wage­earning fishermen in such boats. Most of the
fishermen who did not receive boats and gear work on a daily basis in boats obtained
by the absentee owners. In Marathamunai, the traditional beach seine fishermen, who
find it difficult to engage in their previous occupation due to the accumulation of
debris in the shallow seas, and who do not have access to boats, now work as wage
labourers for absentee owners in Mullaitivu and similar areas.
In Komari 1 and Komari 2, some 700 fisher families are involved in lagoon and
sea fishing. The Fishermen’s Cooperative Society in Komari had only 86 members
before the tsunami; this has increased to 300, as fishermen were required to obtain
membership to qualify for assistance. The intervention of the TRO in post­tsunami
aid distribution resulted in the provision of one item per fisherman—a plastic boat,
an outboard engine, or nets—a method devised to counteract the emerging system
of absentee ownership and to establish a more egalitarian and participatory basis to
fishing, envisaging three fishermen getting together to form a fishing crew. The
fishermen, however, find it hard to form durable crews, and hence this arrangement
has become futile. In addition, the Komari fishermen have found that the boats are
not seaworthy. The affected fishermen in Komari are now increasingly subject to
exploitation by the absentee owners, who, by various means, have obtained boats
and fishing equipment in the post­tsunami environment. The excess boats and fish­
ing gear distributed to people are being purchased by the Mudalalis, who employ
genuine fishermen, without fishing equipment, to work in their boats. Those who
have paid money to register with the fisheries cooperatives have opted to sell their
boats to the Mudalalis and to work in the same boats as labourers—a mechanism
employed to avoid detection of illegal transactions.
Most of the Muslim fishermen who lost boats and fishing equipment in Marathamunai
are of the view that it is difficult to gain access to fisheries aid. But, as revealed in the
interviews, the Tamils in Kalmunai, although most of them were not traditional
fishermen, were given boats and nets due to the intervention of the TRO and the
LTTE. Muslim fishermen say that the Tamil officers in Batticaloa discriminate
against them: the money that came with food stamps was all given to the Tamils in
Batticaloa, whereas in Marathamunai and other Muslim areas, recipients collected
only Rs. 500 or so.19 The Fisheries Office in Kalmunai views this as preferential treat­
ment of Tamils.
The larger picture of post­tsunami aid distribution among fisheries is indicative
of poor coordination, monitoring and supervision on the part of those involved in
the action, and reveals that no effort was made to involve the affected communities
in the process. The result has been an extraordinarily costly waste of resources and
an unequal distribution that favoured entrepreneurs (non­fishermen). If MFAR had
had the capacity to coordinate the aid distribution process together with the affected
people, it could have reduced wastage to a minimum. That MFAR officials in Kalmunai
did not represent the ethnic groups that were fishermen at large in the District also
had implications for the participation of people, especially those in Muslim communities.

Ethnicity, politics and inequality 269

In areas where fisheries cooperatives were actively involved in post­tsunami distribu­
tion, such as Kilinochchi and Mullaitivu, malpractices and wastage were not reported
to this extent.20
The post­tsunami fisheries aid distribution programme is a classic example of fail­
ures occurring due to direct intervention by humanitarian aid agencies that did not
make use of existing development networks, such as those of local NGOs, and MFAR
to utilise effectively the participation of affected fishermen in the District.

As the hardest­hit region, Ampara District should have achieved a high level of political
empowerment towards strengthening and mobilising the affected communities to
allow them to gain better access to aid, to exercise their rights and to reconstruct
their livelihoods. The bargaining position of such a population should have allowed
it to attain extremely high levels of success in such a catastrophic situation. What
actually happened in Ampara during the post­tsunami reconstruction phase is con­
trary to what one might have expected. Most notably:

• Instead of the empowerment of disadvantaged people in the District, this large
group, made up of several communities, has been further fragmented and margin­
alised within the construct of the ‘tsunami­affected’.

• A lack of participatory methodologies to promote the empowerment of the poor
and ethnic minorities was evident. Consultations with civil society organisations
could have encouraged inclusiveness in programmes, policy formulation and aid
distribution efforts. If this had been the case, it would have formed the basis and
common ground for poverty reduction and implementing effective ways of pro­
moting livelihood opportunities for the poor, marginalised communities in the

• Ethnic divisions and hierarchies have re-emerged, further fragmenting and re-
segregating those affected in terms of ethnicity, class, and residence or location.
In general, the fishing communities have become more powerless, marginalised
and dejected after the post­tsunami reconstruction programmes.

• Ethnicity has become the organising principle for restructuring the post-tsunami
power structure of the District. The selection of communities on ethnic grounds
for the provision of aid, housing and equipment has contributed to further ethnic
segregation. Muslims and Tamils have become much more conscious of their ethnic
identity after the tsunami.

• Because of political manoeuvring, politically powerful groups within the ethnic
communities harnessed the advantages of the aid programme. Vulnerable groups,
comprising artisans, fishermen, labourers and isolated communities, have not re­
ceived their fair share of tsunami aid.

• The introduction of P-TOMS, which forcibly brought its agents into the area from
outside, not only neglected the initiatives of the civil society organisations in the

M.W. Amarasiri de Silva270

District, but also curtailed their efforts. If these initiatives had been recognised and
made the foundation of an alliance forged to address tsunami­related problems, pov­
erty and destitution, efforts would have been much more successful and inclusive.

• The tsunami humanitarian aid process failed to make use of public institutions in
the District for the purpose of aid distribution and thereby missed the opportunity
to promote accountability and transparency of public institutions.

The agencies engaged in tsunami aid distribution in the District split up the society
instead of making it inclusive, denied power to the poor and the backward classes
instead of empowering them, and employed external forces to distribute aid instead
of utilising existing social capital in the region for such purposes. Tsunami aid dis­
tribution in Ampara District is thus an example of an unsuccessful effort on the part
of external agencies, including the GoSL, as they failed to achieve inclusiveness and
social cohesion through humanitarian aid, instead promoting division and inequality
in the affected communities.
Through an examination of tsunami aid in Ampara District, Sri Lanka, this paper
has demonstrated that local social structures and networks should not be ignored in
humanitarian aid distribution, particularly when many ethnic and social groups are
involved. The traditional approach to relief aid or humanitarian aid emphasises direct
delivery at high speed to the affected communities by the providing agencies, ignor­
ing the secondary effects of their actions, through novel organisational structures,
ignoring existing local development networks. Such an aid delivery system ‘often
becomes intertwined with the forces that drive the conflicts that prompted the aid in
the first place’ (Anderson, 1996, p. 344). This is not only going to fail in contexts such
as that of Ampara, but also it allows interest groups to use such programmes to their
own advantage, while further jeopardising the destiny of the people affected.

I wish to thank Mr S. Majeed and Mr Weerasingham Sudesahan, the two research
assistants who carried out interviews and interpretation work on my behalf during
the period of fieldwork. In addition, I wish to thank Mr Z.M. Jaufer and the many
informants who provided valuable insights and assisted me in successfully organising
my fieldwork in a time of political turbulence. UNDP Colombo and the Depart­
ment for Research Cooperation, Swedish International Development Cooperation
Agency project provided the necessary support for my fieldwork. My special thanks
are due to Ms Radhika Hettiarachchi and her colleagues at UNDP Colombo, three
anonymous reviewers, and Arjun Guneratne, Katharine S. Bjork and Prasannajit de
Silva for providing valuable suggestions on an earlier draft.

M.W. Amarasiri de Silva, Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Peradeniya,
Peradeniya 20400, Sri Lanka. E­mail: or

Ethnicity, politics and inequality 271

1 At the time of writing ( July 2007), GoSL forces have reclaimed the land that was under LTTE con­

trol in the Eastern Province.
2 The Buddhist clergy in Sri Lanka comprises four sectors or chapters (Nikaya). The chief priest of

the chapter (or the Maha Nayaka) is appointed for life from among the most senior and qualified
priests of the chapter on the unanimous approval of the clergy of the respective chapter.

3 A female activist working at the Muslim Women Research and Action Foundation who preferred
to remain anonymous.

4 The District Livelihood Coordination Committee of Ampara was set up by the international NGO
community in Ampara to coordinate the humanitarian assistance provided to tsunami­hit com­
munities in the District. UNDP Ampara is its lead agency.

5 Hartal is a term used for strike action, which originated during the Indian independence movement.
It is mass protest often involving a total shutdown of shops, schools, offices and public utilities vol­
untarily or forcefully by political parties or armed groups. During hartals, banners and protest flags,
usually black flags, are hoisted across the streets and transportation is blocked. The hartals witnessed
by this author in Ampara did not last more than a day.

6 Mr Mohammed Kaleel, an affected fishermen living in Sainthamarathu, Kalmunai.
7 The Peace Secretariat for Muslims was formed in December 2004 when the two main Muslim

political parties, the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress (SLMC) and the National Unity Alliance (NUA),
signed a comprehensive Memorandum of Understanding.

8 A special security meeting of CHA­Ampara was held in April 2006 to discuss the adult filmmaking
issue. The document released by CHA­Ampara does not mention the specific NGO involved in the
incident. See
%20Minutes/MM108_emergency%20security%20meeting .

9 Interview with Mr Mohamed Razak of Kalmunai Town, May 2005.
10 Pradeshiya Sabha is the lowest local government body of elected representatives at the village level.
11 Interview with Mr Mohamed Hasan Cegu Isadean, an Eastern Province politician, May 2006.
12 The Minister is the widow of the late Minister of Ports and Rehabilitation, Mr Muhammed Hussain

Mohammed Ashraff. Mr Ashraff held a Cabinet post in the Government of President Kumaratunga.
He is believed to have been behind Muslim political developments in the East, especially in Ampara.

13 Interview with Mr Mohamed Mansoor, the President of the Centre for East Lanka Social Service,
June 2006.

14 Minutes of the Fisheries and Agricultural Sector Coordination Committee meeting on 28 Febru­

ary 2006.

15 Minutes of the Fisheries and Agricultural Sector Coordination Committee meeting on 28 Febru­
ary 2006.

16 Minutes of the Fisheries and Agricultural Sector Coordination Committee meeting on 28 Febru­
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17 Interview with Mr Udeni Janasiri, a member of the Fishermen’s Cooperative of Panama, June 2006.
18 Minutes of the Fisheries and Agricultural Sector Coordination Committee meeting on 28 Febru­

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Sun, sea, sand and tsunami: examining
disaster vulnerability in the tourism

community of Khao Lak, Thailand

Emma Calgaro1 and Kate Lloyd2

1Department of Human Geography, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia and Stockholm Environment

Institute – Asia Centre, Bangkok, Thailand
2Department of Human Geography, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia

Correspondence: Emma Calgaro (email:

The impact of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami on coastal tourism communities highlights the

vulnerability of tourism destinations to external shocks. Based on fieldwork conducted in Thailand

in the wake of this disaster, this paper addresses one fundamental question: what sociopolitical and

environmental conditions contributed to the vulnerability of the affected tourism community of

Khao Lak in the southern Phang Nga Province. We argue that an understanding of the root causes

of destination vulnerability is vital not only for the successful implementation of regional recovery

plans, but also for building long-term resilience against future shocks. In the absence of an appro-

priate tourism vulnerability framework, this paper analyzes Khao Lak’s vulnerability through an

innovative theoretical framework comprised of the sustainability vulnerability framework, rela-

tional scale and place. The findings reveal that Khao Lak’s vulnerability is shaped by 13 interlinked

factors. These are the complex outcomes of social norms and developmental and dynamic gover-

nance processes driven by the competing agendas and scaled actions of key government and industry

stakeholders. The identification and understanding of the drivers of Khao Lak’s vulnerability and a

strong vulnerability framework have significant implications for the wider tourism community. First,

the empirical findings provide tourism communities with a blueprint for understanding the foun-

dations of their vulnerability to external shocks. Second, the tourism vulnerability framework

presented here provides destination communities and government stakeholders with an analytical

tool through which to analyze their unique sociopolitical conditions. Together, these empirical and

theoretical contributions bring us closer to securing sustainable livelihood futures for tourism

dependent communities.

Keywords: coastal hazards, place, relational scale, sustainable development, tourism, vulnerability



The World Tourism Organization (WTO) and nongovernment organizations (NGOs)
such as Tourism Concern and the Netherlands Development Programme have endorsed
tourism as having the capacity to stimulate development, economic growth, new oppor-
tunities for poverty alleviation and self-governance, particularly in regions that are
resource-scarce and have limited livelihood options. (Ashley et al., 2000; WTO, 2005a).
Such endorsements have enticed many developing countries to embrace tourism as a
viable livelihood alternative where fragmented small economies, limited natural
resources (Wilkinson, 1989) and unequal terms of trade (Oliver-Smith, 1996; Bankoff,
2003) limit livelihood options. This development trend has seen tourism eclipse tradi-
tional subsistence-based livelihoods such as agriculture and fishing as the main source
of revenue (Richter, 1993; UNEP, 2002).

Missing from the WTO’s advocacy of tourism’s developmental capabilities is an
acknowledgement of the inherent vulnerability of host communities to shocks, as was


Singapore Journal of Tropical Geography 29 (2008) 288–306

© 2008 The Authors

Journal compilation © 2008 Department of Geography, National University of Singapore and Blackwell Publishing Asia Pty Ltd

powerfully demonstrated by the impacts of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. The reper-
cussions of prior events such as the 1997–1998 Asian financial crises, the Bali bombings
of 2001 and 2005, the severe acute respiratory syndrome and bird flu epidemics of 2003
and 2004 had already highlighted the sensitivity of destination communities to both
localized and remote events beyond their control (Ritchie, 2004).

In the light of this, we deem it essential to investigate how long-term benefits from
tourism can be sustained in the face of risk and vulnerability by incorporating an
assessment of a host community’s vulnerability into all tourism development and
management strategies. Research on risk and sustainability supports this view: long-
term resilience plans aimed at securing future sustainable livelihoods cannot be opera-
tionalized without an understanding of the underlying sociopolitical processes and
environmental linkages that underpin vulnerability (Clark et al., 2000; Cutter et al.,
2000; Pelling, 2003; Turner et al., 2003; Thomalla et al., 2006).

The tourism literature identifies five factors that help to explain why some
destinations are vulnerable to shocks: the place-specific nature of tourist activity
(Richter & Waugh, 1986, Sönmez et al., 1999), the fragility of destination images
to negative perceptions of risk (Richter & Waugh, 1986; Sönmez & Graefe, 1998;
Mansfeld, 1999; Huan et al., 2004), a high dependency on tourism as a primary live-
lihood (Knox & Marston, 2004; Ritchie, 2004), a heavy reliance on the marketing
strategies of international tour operators (Knox & Marston, 2004), and high levels of
seasonality (Méheaux & Parker, 2006). These are common characteristics of tourism
activity in many developing country destinations including those affected by the 2004
tsunami, in Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Maldives. The growing popularity of using
tourism as a development tool in resource-scarce regions will likely see this vulner-
ability increase (Knox & Marston, 2004). Seasonal tourism flows and annual business
revenue can easily be disrupted by shocks, causing simultaneous losses for household,
community, regional and national actors. Losses further diminish investment confi-
dence, lower rates of job creation, slow economic growth and reduce gross domestic
product (GDP) (Sönmez et al., 1999; Gurtner, 2004). Richter and Waugh (1986)
observe that if there is trouble in one area tourists simply choose alternate destina-
tions, which demonstrates the most disempowering characteristic of tourism-
dependence for destination households and communities. In contrast, international
tour operators and national governments anxious to retain projected levels of GDP
and foreign exchange can avoid this pitfall by diverting business to alternate
in-country or regional destinations.

While the identification of these provide significant insights into the vulnerability of
tourism communities, a systematic analysis of the place-specific environmental and
sociopolitical causal factors underlying vulnerability in tourism destinations is missing.
This research addresses this omission by focusing on the impacts of the 2004 tsunami
on Khao Lak, Phang Nga Province, southern Thailand. By so doing, it provides the
foundational knowledge necessary for tourism community stakeholders, regional plan-
ners and policy makers to formulate robust resilience building strategies that account
for the root causes of destination vulnerability rather than the consequences of shocks

Building a framework for analyzing tourism destination vulnerability

Adopting an interdisciplinary approach, vulnerability is recognized as a multidimen-
sional product of the coupled human–environment system and defined as:

Examining disaster vulnerability, Thailand 289

The degree to which an exposure unit [human groups, ecosystems and communities] is

susceptible to harm due to exposure to a perturbation or stress, and the ability (or lack thereof)

of the exposure unit to cope, recover, or fundamentally adapt (become a new system or

become extinct) (Kasperson et al., 2002: 7).

The vulnerability of a community or group is determined by three dynamic and inter-
connected dimensions: exposure, sensitivity, and resilience (Clark et al., 2000; Turner
et al., 2003). Exposure, a product of physical location and the character of the built and
natural environment (Pelling, 2003: 48), is defined as the degree to which an exposure
unit comes into contact with stressors or shocks (Clark et al., 2000: 2). Sensitivity is
defined as the degree to which an exposure unit is affected by any set of stresses (Clark
et al., 2000) and reflects the capacity of individuals or groups to anticipate and with-
stand the impacts of a hazard (Pelling, 2003: 48). Sensitivity is characterised predomi-
nantly by preexisting conditions of the social system that may be improved or
exacerbated by coping and adaptation strategies post-shock. Resilience is defined as the
ability of an exposure unit to absorb and adapt to recurrent external stresses without
losing its fundamental structure and function (Adger et al., 2002). Resilience is a direct
expression of the strength of the coupled human–environment system reflecting its self
organization, learning, and adaptation capabilities in response to shocks (Carpenter
et al., 2001).

The ability to anticipate, withstand, and recover from shocks hinges upon people’s
access and entitlements to natural, economic, social and political capital. These, in turn,
are determined by the strength and effectiveness of the governance systems and social
networks (Hewitt, 1997; Adger, 2003) that facilitate (or constrain) access to capital and
the competing agendas and ideologies driving them (Adger, 1999; Pelling, 2003; Wisner
et al., 2004). These are expressed through formal government structures, political ide-
ologies, ethnicity, class, religion and social norms determined by human agency and
wider historically embedded and contemporary sociopolitical and economic


operating simultaneously at multiple scales of social organization (Kelly & Adger, 2000;
Bankoff, 2003; Wisner et al., 2004). An awareness of the processes that drive the uneven
distribution of power and resources within the social system is therefore crucial to
understanding vulnerability.

Climate change, disaster management and food security research has provided
numerous frameworks and methods for assessing vulnerability in risk prone locations
(see Cannon et al., 2003), but none of these approaches have been adapted to assess
vulnerability in tourism destinations. Nankervis (2000) does provide an industry specific
vulnerability framework but its focus on all tourism business stakeholders operating at
the global to local scales leaves the framework lacking necessary detail at the commu-
nity level. In the absence of a suitable framework, this paper presents a robust tourism
vulnerability framework consisting of three complementary theoretical constructs:
Turner et al.’s (2003) sustainability vulnerability framework, relational scale and place.
Together, these theoretical tools create a strong framework for analyzing the multiple
causal factors and underlying power discourses that contribute to the vulnerability of
tourism communities.

The sustainability vulnerability framework
Born out of the interdisciplinary systems approach to vulnerability analysis, Turner et al.
(2003) present a framework that systematically identifies and maps the scaled inter-
linked components and processes that heighten vulnerability within the human–

290 Emma Calgaro and Kate Lloyd

environment system. Turner et al.’s (2003) sustainability vulnerability framework was
chosen to guide and structure the analysis of destination vulnerability based on its
inclusion of the multiple attributes of vulnerability. It captures the dynamic and differ-
ential nature of vulnerability whereby populations, characteristics and driving forces of
vulnerability change over space and time (Vogel & O’Brien, 2004). The framework not
only recognises that an individual’s or group’s exposure, sensitivity and resilience to
shocks is directly linked to access and entitlements to resources in a given location
(Figure 1) but also places this experience within a wider context. The focus of the
framework expands to show the way in which resource entitlements, distribution and
usage is influenced by evolutionary (Cutter et al., 2000; Bankoff, 2003) sociopolitical
and environmental processes operating at multiple scales of social organisation
(Figure 2). Further, the framework also shows that vulnerability is affected by multiple
and compounding stressors and a population’s capacity to respond and adapt over time
and space (including consequences and risks of slow and poor recoveries) (Lewis, 1999;
Cutter et al., 2000; Turner et al., 2003; Adger, 2006).

However, the sustainability vulnerability framework does not offer a forum for
analyzing how various social actors use scaled sociopolitical processes and structures to
both facilitate and constrain access to capital, which in turn influences an individual’s or
community’s vulnerability to external shocks. The geographical concepts of relational
scale and place fulfil these analytical requirements.

The dynamics of relational scale
Stemming from geographical theory on spatial organization, relational scale recognizes
scale as a fluid and dynamic sociopolitical construct that reflects the subjectivity of
historical and contemporary power processes. Through the deconstruction of ‘natural-
ized’ scales of social organization (such as national, regional, local, and so on), relational
scale explores the way in which actors simultaneously use multiple scaled social pro-
cesses and supporting structures to either reinforce the uneven balance of power within
a given society or create new landscapes of power, recognition and opportunity (Howitt,
1993; Ellem, 2002; Herod & Wright, 2002). The angle depends on the politicized
agendas or positionality of the actors involved. Put simply, knowing which political
buttons to press and at what scale is crucial in bringing about a favourable outcome.

Recognizing scale as an expression of power and control over capital, relational scale
adds depth and dynamism to Turner et al.’s (2003) vulnerability framework by exposing
the underlying sociopolitical processes and corresponding structures that perpetuate
social inequality, and the agendas that drive them. This creates an invaluable medium
for analyzing the vulnerability of tourism communities in three ways. First, its focus on
stakeholder dynamics requires the identification of the various actors that influence
destination vulnerability. Second, it explores how these stakeholders position them-
selves within the political arena to increase their access to capital. Finally, the identifi-
cation of key stakeholders with vested interests in tourism development and the
multiscaled structures they work through provide planners, policy makers and commu-
nity members with a clear directive regarding the type of resilience strategies required,
the target audience and the most appropriate scales for policy intervention.

Place: a sociopolitically charged landscape
Place provides a theoretical lens through which to define Khao Lak as the subject
of study and ‘situate’ it within the wider structures and processes that influence
its vulnerability. The concept of place is more than a physical location or politically

Examining disaster vulnerability, Thailand 291


Exposure Sensitivity


Adjustment and

(e.g. newprogrammes, policy,
& autonomous options)

(e.g. loss of life,

economic production,
soil, ecosystem


(e.g. extant




social/human capital & endowments
(e.g. population, entitlements,
institutions, economic structures)

Environmental conditions
natural capital/biophysical

(e.g. soil, water, climate,

minerals, ecosystemstructure
& function)


(e.g. individuals,
classes, firms,
states, flora/fauna,

(e.g. frequency,

Figure 1. Interactive components of vulnerability within a given place from Turner et al. (2003: 8077,

Figure 4). Inset figure at the top left refers to the full vulnerability framework at Figure 2 below. (Copyright

(2003) National Academy of Sciences, USA; reproduced with permission.)

Adjustment &

Exposure Sensitivity Resilience

& components

of exposure




Interactions of hazards
(perturbations, stresses,


Variability & change
in human conditions

Variability & change
in environmental


Environmental influences outside the place
State of biosphere, state of nature,

global environmental changes


Adjustment &

Human influences outside the place
Macro political economy, institutions,

global trends and transitions


System operates at multiple
spatial, functional and

temporal scales


In place
Beyond place

Figure 2. The sustainability vulnerability framework proposed by Turner et al. (2003: 8076, Figure 3).

(Copyright (2003) National Academy of Sciences, USA; reproduced with permission.)

292 Emma Calgaro and Kate Lloyd

demarcated space. Place embodies a sociopolitically charged landscape infused with
multiple layers of meaning, collective identities, experiences and understandings devel-
oped over time and space (Massey, 1993). Like vulnerability, place is an ever evolving
multifaceted creation of social processes and human agency. The uniqueness of place
derives from a distinct blend of localized and wider social interactions operating outside
a given place and a historical layering of events particular to that area (Massey, 1993).
However, underlying the subjective construction of place is the power of definition
(Cresswell, 1999).

Place as a sociopolitical product of multiple images, identities and interactions is
embodied in the systematic creation of the tourism product. The product encapsulated
in the tourism destination is a blend of multilayered imaginations constructed and
defined by tour operators and key destination stakeholders in accordance with the
perceived expectations and desires of the travelling public (Pritchard & Morgan, 2000;
Young, 1999). In this sense, places are reinterpreted, reimagined, designed and mar-
keted (Knox & Marston, 2004) as manufactured and ‘placed’ images that are sold to
tourists (Nijman, 1999). The identification of who carries out the reimaging and cultural
packaging and on what terms (Knox & Marston, 2004) are key to understanding
important power dynamics that not only mould the tourism product, but may also
influence the destination’s vulnerability.


Considering the place-specific nature of vulnerability, case study analysis has come to
dominate vulnerability assessment based on its capacity to deconstruct complex and
place-based phenomena. Khao Lak was chosen as the case study because it was the
worst affected tourism destination across Asia and Africa in terms of lives lost and
property damage. Three qualitative methods were used to identify the factors and
processes that contribute to Khao Lak’s vulnerability to shocks. An exploratory litera-
ture review together with secondary document analysis (of newspaper reports, NGO
recovery reports and various official and government documents) identified preliminary
causal factors that heightened Khao Lak’s vulnerability to the tsunami, which in turn,
shaped relevant questions for semistructured field interviews. Twenty-four interviews
with tourism stakeholders (8 in Bangkok, 1 in Phuket and 15 in Khao Lak) were
undertaken over a one-month period in mid-2005 to verify and build upon the factors
identified from the secondary data, supplemented by ongoing updates. Interview par-
ticipants included national, provincial, district and subdistrict government representa-
tives, nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives, environmental action
group members, research institute and media representatives, and tourism industry
representatives from small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in Khao Lak. The Bangkok
and Phuket participants were selected for their knowledge of the tourism industry and
Thai government structures, plus their involvement in the recovery process. Khao Lak
participants were identified using snowballing techniques. As many interviews were
conducted on condition of anonymity, the names of some individuals quoted here are

Khao Lak: beautiful and booming one day, gone the next

Khao Lak is a new coastal resort destination that had grown from 100 rooms in 1996 to
5315 rooms by December 2004.1 Located on Thailand’s southwest Andaman Coast, in
Takuapa District, Phang Nga Province, and bordered by Khao Lak-Lamru National Park,

Examining disaster vulnerability, Thailand 293

the heart of the destination extends from Khao Lak Beach northwards to Laem
Pakarang (or Coral Cape) (Figure 3). Positioned within the competitive Thai tourism
market as an alternative to its bustling neighbouring destination of


(98 km to the south), Khao Lak is marketed as a peaceful haven for nature lovers who
want to relax. Tourists attracted to Khao Lak are predominantly German and Swedish
families and retirees escaping the European winter.

The service community that has grown with the destination mainly comprises
locally owned SMEs including resorts, restaurants, souvenir shops, tailoring and
health spa facilities, taxi and guide services, and scuba diving companies. Khao Lak’s
4- and 5-star resort developments, owned by both local investors and international
chains, only appeared after 2000 but their numbers have increased since the tsunami,
whereas many smaller businesses have lacked the financial and psychological strength
to rebuild. Strong tourist demand is generated through locally run accommodation
websites, travel guidebooks and the promotions of European tour operators including
TUI AG (Touristik Union International Aktiengesellschaft) and Thomas Cook. Con-

0 10 20 30 40km


Phuket 98km
Krabi 171 km







Tap LamuPier
























Banda Aceh











epicentre PUTRAJAYA



Study area of
Khao Lak

0 200km

Figure 3. Location map of Khao Lak in Phang Nga Province, southern Thailand; the dotted line approxi-

mates the tsunami-eroded beachfront.

294 Emma Calgaro and Kate Lloyd

stant demand fills the resorts to full capacity for six months between October and
March, providing enough earnings to sustain the community through the wet low
season (averaging 30 per cent capacity).

During the December 2004 tsunami, 10.6-m-high waves penetrated up to 2 km
inland, destroying approximately 90 per cent of the hotel rooms available in Khao Lak
(Bangkok Post, 2005). Seventy per cent of the 8212 deaths in Thailand occurred in Phang
Nga Province (ADPC, 2006). Estimates suggest that 358 of Khao Lak’s tourism employ-
ees lost their lives along with 2229 foreigners (ADPC, 2006; director, Department of
Labour, Phang Nga Province, pers. comm., Phang Nga, 7 February 2007). Those workers
who survived were left with no jobs, no income and few livelihood alternatives to
support a recovery.

Case study findings: the vulnerability of Khao Lak deconstructed

Disasters such as the 2004 tsunami dramatically expose the strengths and weaknesses of
the affected community’s socioenvironmental system and thus its vulnerability to
shocks (Pelling, 2003; Wisner et al., 2004). But disasters can also be catalysts for change
(Oliver-Smith, 1996; Lewis, 1999). Reflecting the complex nature of vulnerability, the
presentation of the causal factors is neither simple nor linear; the factors feed into and
off each other. Accordingly, we use a conceptual structure based on Turner et al.’s (2003)
framework to explore the causal factors that have contributed respectively to the
exposure, sensitivity and resilience of the Khao Lak community to the tsunami. Woven
throughout the analysis are elucidations into how these factors are socially constructed
and reinforced by economic development processes, uneven access to resources, weak
governance and the competing agendas of key stakeholders. An overview of the 13
three-dimensional factors that underlie Khao Lak’s vulnerability and the scales at which
they are constructed is presented in Figure 4.

An examination of Khao Lak’s natural and developmental characteristics revealed two
interlinked factors that heightened the primarily coastal-based community’s exposure to
the tsunami: flat coastal terrain lacking environmental defences and inappropriate
coastal development.

Nature of the physical terrain. The nature of the coastal terrain where much tourism
development is found (Murphy & Bayley, 1989) is a key contributor to Khao Lak’s
exposure to coastal hazards (senior Thai researcher, Thailand Institute of Scientific And
Technological Research, pers. comm., Bangkok, 29 June 2005). Khao Lak’s tourism
facilities are concentrated along a strip of flat land that extends 2 km inland to the foot
of an escarpment. This, along with the clearing of the original deep-rooted forest,
grasslands and rubber plantations, heightened the coastline’s susceptibility to erosion
and left the built environment with no buffer against the force of the waves (Thai
environmentalist, Toward Ecological Recovery and Regional Alliance (TERRA), pers.
comm., Bangkok, 29 June 2005). Developments on higher ground in the hills fronting
Khao Lak Beach sustained little damage.

Placement and type of development. Jeff McNeely, chief scientist of the International
Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), attributed the enormous loss of life from
the 2004 tsunami to the human intrusion on natural shorelines typified by the

Examining disaster vulnerability, Thailand 295

inappropriate developments that line the Indian Ocean coastal rim (Bangkok Post, 2004).
In Khao Lak, the proximity of many resorts to the flat exposed beach – sited to capitalize
on the foreshore terrain and beach views – coupled with the types of structures built,
clearly heightened the physical exposure to coastal hazards.

Provincial building regulations stipulated a 30-m setback from the natural vegeta-
tion line but did not include structural codes (government officer, Khuk Khak Sub-
district, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 8 July 2005). Smaller structures (mainly bungalow
clusters) were largely built out of wood while many larger resorts were constructed from
concrete. The pattern of destruction caused by the tsunami indicates the unsuitability of
the beach-facing developments in Khao Lak. Entering the buildings through the large
sea-fronting windows, the tsunami waves demolished the wooden structures and gutted
the concrete structures. Concrete buildings constructed perpendicular to the shoreline,
however, remained structurally intact. Ensuring that safety standards are not compro-
mised to fulfil tourist demands for water views is a continuing challenge for Thai
tourism communities and planners.


According to Adger (2003) and Hewitt (1997), a system’s ability to absorb external
shocks and recover rests with the robustness and effectiveness of preexisting governance
systems and social networks that control a community’s access to resources. Findings
confirm that Khao Lak’s sensitivity was heightened by factors relating to the local
private sector’s differential access to resources, the aptitude of governance structures
and agendas of stakeholders who work through these structures, as well as the desti-
nation’s dependency on highly seasonal tourism flows.

Exposure Sensitivity Resilience





Human Conditions

Limited livelihood options

Access to economic capital
and insurance

Pre-existing weakness of
government structure and


Unpreparedness for natural

Human conditions

Vulnerability of Khao Lak to the 2004 tsunami


Natural terrain


Adjustment and

Early warning system

Post-tsunami tourism strategy

Natural resource management

Resilient market base

Robust marketing strategies


led financial


Strong local

Figure 4. Scaled causal factors contributing to Khao Lak’s vulnerability following Turner et al.’s (2003)

vulnerability framework.

296 Emma Calgaro and Kate Lloyd

Limited livelihood options and seasonality. Livelihood diversification is a key strategy in
reducing vulnerability against multiple shocks (Moser et al., 2001). Prior to the com-
mencement of tourism development in 1988, the greater Khao Lak area was charac-
terized by sparsely populated villages that derived livelihoods from rubber and fruit
plantations, and subsistence fishing. Tourism created new opportunities for people to
start up businesses that provided hundreds of jobs (Khao Lak SME Group representa-
tive, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005). However, the rapid development of lucrative
tourism options along the narrow coastal strip dramatically reduced the attraction and
prospects of traditional livelihoods, leaving little land for plantations. Only a minority of
local operators concurrently engage in alternate businesses in the neighbouring town of
Takuapa or plantations nearby (MK, restaurant and bungalow owner, pers. comm.,
Khao Lak, 13 July


Khao Lak’s vulnerability is further exacerbated by being dependent on highly
seasonal tourism business accruing from a ‘pristine’ environmental image, one that was
shattered by the tsunami. Occuring at the height of the tourism season, this greatly
diminished the community’s annual earnings (Thai environmentalist, TERRA, pers.
comm., Bangkok, 29 June 2005). The Thai government’s decision to divert all remain-
ing business to unaffected destinations across the country compounded Khao Lak’s
financial losses. While this strategy helped to stabilize national tourism numbers and
retain high levels of GDP, Khao Lak business owners believed that it marginalized them

Uneven access to economic capital and insurance. Khao Lak’s tourism boom saw many
people in the greater Takuapa District invest all their accessible financial capital from
savings, land sales or previous business ventures into small tourism ventures,
re-investing the profits to expand these over time (Phang Nga Tourism Association
representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005). This strategy left many smaller
business owners with limited savings and a reduced capacity for recovery, while larger
investors with preexisting bank loans were left with no immediate means to meet
repayments (Khao Lak SME Group representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July
2005). Compounding business recovery efforts further was the typical lack of insurance
coverage, purportedly seen by most entrepreneurs as an unnecessary business cost.
Larger resorts with access to outside financial backing and the benefit of insurance
policies still experienced economic shortfalls; payouts were insufficient to cover the
rebuilding costs (PY, resort owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 11 July 2005). But the
hardest hit were the industry employees who were left with no jobs, no land to sell or
rebuild on and few other local livelihood options (SO, tour operator, pers. comm., Khao
Lak, 12 July 2005). While officially registered employees qualify for social security
compensation entitlements, many in the tourism sector, including Burmese construc-
tion workers and those in the lowest paying jobs, are undocumented (United Nations
Environment Programme representative, pers. comm., Bangkok, 5 July 2005).

Weaknesses in governance structures and processes. The contingent basis of policy formula-
tion and implementation in Thailand were a major contributing factor to Khao Lak’s
vulnerability. While the Ministry of Tourism and Sports oversees the direction of
tourism policy at the national level, the decentralization of tourism planning strategies
in 2003 allows provincial and local governments to implement strategies suited to
localized needs and resources (Brickshawana, 2003; The Nation, 2005a). Though a
positive step towards localized empowerment, the necessary logistical support for this is

Examining disaster vulnerability, Thailand 297

lacking. Phang Nga provincial officials have limited capacity to oversee the local imple-
mentation of tourism planning strategies while subdistrict-level authorities lack the
expertise, power and often political will to implement and enforce these strategies (The
Nation, 2005a; Tourism Authority of Thailand representative, pers. comm., Phuket
Town, 7 July 2005). Such shortcomings undermined the enforcement of planning
regulations on beachfront developments prior to the tsunami.

Discussions with national and local stakeholders alike confirmed that widespread
corruption at the local level compounded these governance shortcomings. Stakeholders
with money and political connections successfully ‘secured’ approvals for developments
contravening planning regulations – most conspicuously, the unabated construction of
hotels within the 30-metre setback line (government official, Khuk Khak Subdistrict,
pers. comm., Khao Lak, 8 July 2005; PY, resort owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 11 July
2005). Corruption frequently includes government officials who belong to the local
elite; they not only benefit financially from unofficial ‘additional’ payments, but also use
their positions to partake in illegal development (WK, tour operator, pers. comm., Khao
Lak, 10 July 2005; PY, resort owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 11 July 2005). The fear of
negative political consequences that collectively discourages challenges to well con-
nected stakeholders works to strengthen this alternate governance system and heighten

Lack of disaster awareness and preparedness. Cassedy (1991) and Murphy and Bayley
(1989) state that tourism businesses and industry organizations are often ill-prepared for
disaster situations, particularly in high risk areas where potential impacts of hazards are
regularly played down for marketing purposes. This was the case for Khao Lak. Com-
munity members interviewed remained largely unaware of the threat natural hazards
posed to the Andaman Coast, an ignorance fostered by the routine suppression or
official denials of hazard predications and warnings. For example, a warning issued in
1998 by the Meteorological Department detailing the likely threat tsunamis posed to the
Andaman Coast was reported in the local Phuket and Phang Nga newspapers (WK, tour
operator, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 10 July 2005; RB, tour guide, pers. comm., Khao Lak,
19 July 2005). However this was immediately refuted by the Thai government because
the potential ramifications upon tourism flows to Phuket and the surrounding destina-
tions were considered too costly (The Nation, 2005a). This same reason was cited for the
failure of the Meteorological Department to issue an immediate tsunami warning early
on the morning of 26 December 2004 (The Nation, 2005b). In this case, economic and
politically loaded decisions to withhold vital information on coastal risks not only
contributed greatly to the number of lives lost, but, with hindsight, also incurred far
more costly socioeconomic ramifications. This demonstrates the extent to which the
agendas of the ruling national elite directly influenced hazard vulnerability at the local


Resilience is a direct expression of the strength of the coupled human–environment
system reflecting its self-organization, learning and adaptive capabilities (Carpenter
et al., 2001). As Khao Lak recovers from the impacts of the tsunami, the importance of
strong governance, self-organization and adaptation has become clear. The Thai gov-
ernment played a crucial role in distributing financial capital to aid recovery by formu-
lating resilience-building strategies and campaigning hard to restore tourist confidence.

298 Emma Calgaro and Kate Lloyd

However, these actions were undermined by the preexisting deficiencies in and prefer-
ences of Thai governance structures that perpetuated unequal resource distribution.
Faced with these deficiencies, the Khao Lak community mobilized strong community
action aimed at regional, national and international stakeholders in a bid to restore
Khao Lak as an international tourism destination.

Strong national tourism recovery policies. Following the 2004 tsunami, the central Thai
government introduced the Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan (phaen maebot feunfu
kangthongthieo Andaman), a product of multiple stakeholder input aimed at stimulat-
ing rapid and sustainable tourism recovery in the six southern tsunami-affected prov-
inces – Ranong, Phang Nga, Phuket, Krabi, Trang and Satun (Prof Suraches Chetamas,
Khao Lak Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan project manager, pers. comm., Bangkok, 4
July 2005). Three key strategies were propounded: formulating an integrated tourism
development strategy, facilitating a strong private sector recovery by offering financial
support and launching multiple marketing drives (TAT, 2005). While the plan offers
strong guidelines for the affected communities, successful implementation is proving
difficult due to deficiencies in governance structures and conflicting interests operating
at various scales of social organization.

The post-tsunami tourism planning strategy includes the introduction of strict
zoning regulations and building codes and an integrated road evacuation system. The
new zoning restrictions and building codes include a 30-m development setback, mul-
tiple graded density zones and structural codes. However, the subdistrict and district
governments lack the financial and human resources required to oversee their enforce-
ment (Thawee Haomhuam, civil engineer, Department of Public Works and Town and
Country Planning, Phuket, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 12 July 2005). Consequent viola-
tions continue to perpetuate the exposure of built structures and their inhabitants to
future coastal hazards. No obvious steps have been taken to address these contraven-
tions in governance (Prof. Suraches Chetamas, Khao Lak Andaman Tourism Recovery
Plan project manager, pers. comm. Bangkok, 4 July 2005). The completion of the road
evacuation system was stalled and finally halted by two factors: bureaucratic obstacles
created by local opposition from multiple stakeholders and the Thai government’s
inability to finance the repossession of prime development land (Prof. Suraches Cheta-
mas, Khao Lak Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan project manager, pers. comm.,
Bangkok, 4 July 2005). Local stakeholders adamantly resisted changes seen to nega-
tively alter the appeal of Khao Lak’s beachfront and lower market share. Without local
support the central government is unable to implement action plans, placing recovery
plans in doubt.

The second component of the recovery plan involved substantial government-led
financial assistance to promote a strong recovery. In early 2005, the Thai government
endorsed the establishment of three financial assistance measures for private sector
stakeholders: (i) initial emergency payments supported by the Ministry of the Interior,
(ii) a Tsunami Recovery Fund (kongthun feunfu sunami) supported by the Thai Gov-
ernment Venture Capital Fund, aimed at assisting larger businesses, and (iii) soft loan
provisions under a Bank Of Thailand ‘Lending to entrepreneurs affected by the tsunami
in six provinces’ programme (kanhai nguen kuyeum samrap phu prakobkan tii dai rap
pholkratob chaak sunami nai 6 krongkarn radab changwat), which catered to small
business interests (BOT, 2005; 2006; UN 2005; WTO 2005b). While these measures have
assisted the recovery of some businesses, application delays, bureaucratic obstacles and
corrupt practices hindered their effectiveness.

Examining disaster vulnerability, Thailand 299

The distribution of emergency payments placed under the jurisdiction of local village
leaders often disproportionately benefited friends and relatives (PJ, restaurant owner,
pers. comm., Khao Lak, 8 July 2005). Claims from larger businesses exceeded the capital
made available through the Tsunami Recovery Fund and were subject to long delays
(PY, resort owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 11 July 2005). Soft loan provisions were
made available through the Government Savings Bank (GSB, 2005; 2006) and the SME
Bank’s Tsunami SME Fund (kongthun chuayleua visahakij kanad klang lae kanadyom
tii dai rap pholkratob chaak sunami). Yet many small businesses were unable to secure
funding because they lacked the required documentation (business registration papers,
proof of assets and so on), either because it was swept away or because prior to the
tsunami, they were not required to register (Khao Lak SME Group representative, pers.
comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005). Furthermore, claim limits of THB 500 000 (USD
14 650) and THB 300 000 (USD 8780) (from the SME Fund and Government Savings
Bank respectively) were too low to make a substantial difference to the recovery of
successful small business claimants (CR, restaurant and bungalow owner, pers. comm.,
Khao Lak, 13 July 2005).

The only other financial resources available for reconstruction were via commercial
bank loans, family support and alternate livelihood sources. Preexisting loans held by
some of the larger business owners coupled with doubts regarding Khao Lak’s future
financial viability limited the success of new applications (Phang Nga Tourism Association
representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005). This reluctance to reinvest and
finance rebuilding negatively affects Khao Lak’s image as a tourist destination. While
those with multiple businesses or livelihood sources were more able to aid their own re-
covery, the majority had to turn to family and friends families for support where possible.

The final component of the Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan concerned the resto-
ration of consumer confidence and tourism flows to pre-tsunami levels. The Tourism
Authority of Thailand was responsible for restoring consumer confidence on behalf of all
the affected destinations by hosting familiarization trips for international and Thai tour
operators and travel agents to affected areas, running aggressive promotional campaigns
and offering discount packages (TAT, 2005). These promotions did prove effective for
Phuket and Krabi (about 171 km south of Khao Lak). Khao Lak, however, was not
included as, given the extent of damage sustained, recovery was thought unlikely
(Tourism Authority of Thailand representative, pers. comm., Phuket, 7 July 2005). These
preferences based on economic reasonings have resulted in the uneven distribution of
financial and political support among affected communities, stimulating recovery in
established destinations while heightening vulnerability levels in others – most notably
Khao Lak.

Strong local representation. Disaster outcomes can also create opportunities for political
reorganisation, solidarity and activism, and social transformation (Oliver-Smith, 1996).
Much of Khao Lak’s resilience is based on the strength, self-organization and adaptive
capabilities of local groups. The Phang Nga Tourism Association (samakhom kan-
thongthieo changwat Phang Nga) and the Khao Lak SME Group were instrumental in
petitioning the central government for more funding to hasten the rebuilding process,
influencing development plans and accessing core markets to restore confidence and
business. The skilful use of multiscaled actions by both parties in securing more capital
resonates strongly with relational scale theory: recognizing scale as a fluid expression of
power creates multiple opportunities for social transformation (Ellem, 2002; Herod &
Wright, 2002; Howitt, 2003).

300 Emma Calgaro and Kate Lloyd

The Phang Nga Tourism Association (representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July
2005) used its weekly meetings with the provincial governor to air grievances over
delays and the uneven distribution of financial resources and used its close connections
with the local parliamentary member (a former president of the association) to voice
opinions regarding the future planning strategy for Khao Lak at the national level. Set
up by a locally resident German business owner in direct response to the tsunami, the
Khao Lak SME Group (representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005) successfully
sourced additional funding from key markets including Germany through a Khao Lak
accommodation website ( and distributed this equally among
its members. The establishment of this group brought stability to many small business
owners who lost everything and, by creating new landscapes of power and opportunity,
heightened the community’s adaptive capacity and resilience.

To restore consumer confidence, Phang Nga Tourism Association representatives
successfully gained marketing support, particularly international brochure exposure,
through long-established European partnerships that had facilitated Khao Lak’s pre-
tsunami boom – for example, although business for 2005 was diverted to other Thai
destinations, Thomas Cook featured medium and large resorts in Khao Lak for the 2006
season (PY, resort owner, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 11 July 2005). Small resort owners con-
tinue to reach their market – the independent traveller – through locally controlled web-
sites and guidebook exposure (WK, tour operator, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 10 July 2005).
As the founder of the Khao Lak SME Group (Richard Doring, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 30
August 2005) pointed out, smaller resorts had greater control over their marketing tools
and strategies and were more resilient in this respect than their larger counterparts.

Resilient markets and clientele. The resilience of Khao Lak’s tourism community is not
solely based on its capacity to access sociopolitical and economic resources but also on
the resilience and loyalty of their European market base. The business community’s
focus on building close relationships with clients has created a strong repeat client base,
ranging from 20 per cent for larger resorts to 80 per cent for some smaller resorts. Loyal
clientele, returning with family and friends, have proved instrumental in Khao Lak’s
recovery (Khao Lak SME Group representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 9 July 2005).
Access to this type of social capital further strengthens the community’s resilience
against external shocks.

Early warning system: a key component of tourism’s recovery plan. The establishment of the
UNESCO-led Indian Ocean Early Warning System was heralded by the government and
tsunami affected communities as a crucial tool for increasing preparedness against
future shocks, and helping to reassure tourists and hasten recovery (UN, 2005). In
Thailand, the Department for Disaster Mitigation And Prevention and Ministry of
Interior had oversight of its implementation in the six affected southern provinces.
Functioning towers were erected in Phuket and Krabi by July 2005, but not until
December 2005 in Khao Lak, well into the high season. No explanation was given for
the delay, which caused some anger and frustration in the community and, among those
interviewed, reinforced the government’s perceived preference for restoring tourist
confidence in the more lucrative neighbouring destinations. Some interviewees also
attributed this to the ineffectiveness of the subdistrict and district authorities in com-
municating the concerns of the community to the national level. Whatever the reason-
ing, installation delays left the community vulnerable to possible tsunami threats and
hindered their efforts in attracting tourism business back to Khao Lak.

Examining disaster vulnerability, Thailand 301

Natural resource management. Adger et al. (2005) stress the need to complement socio-
political measures with strategies that enhance the capacity of ecosystems to regenerate
and adapt to hazardous conditions, particularly in sensitive coastal zones where 23 per
cent of the world’s population live. To counteract the physical exposure of the open
terrain and buffer the built environment against future wave surges, the replanting of
native trees and grasses along Khao Lak’s eroded beaches was undertaken by the
Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR representative, pers. comm.,
Takuapa, 8 July 2005). Casuarina and Pandanaceae trees were chosen because their root
systems prevent further erosion and their presence creates a natural barrier against
storm surges or tsunami impacts. As a major driver of change in coastal areas, tourism
ironically has the capacity to decrease resilience through the destruction of the ecologi-
cal resource base that it relies upon for its success. Increasing the biophysical resilience
also underpins the sustainability of tourism development and livelihoods.


The findings presented in this paper answer one fundamental question: what sociopo-
litical and environmental conditions contributed to the vulnerability of Khao Lak’s
tourism community to the impacts of the 2004 tsunami? In line with other tourism
research (Richter & Waugh, 1986; Sönmez et al., 1999; Knox & Marston, 2004; Ritchie,
2004; Méheaux & Parker, 2006), findings from Khao Lak confirm that its vulnerability
stems from a high reliance on place-based and seasonal tourism. The tsunami ruined
Khao Lak’s highly marketable image as a peaceful haven for European winter travellers.
The heavy reliance on the marketing strategies of international tour operators leaves
many medium and larger businesses with little control over the recovery of their
market; small businesses that access their market base through locally controlled web-
sites and guidebooks retain more control. That said, the findings categorically show
that the causes underlying the vulnerability of tourism communities are much more
complex than the tourism literature acknowledges.

Analyzed through the theoretical lens of the sustainability vulnerability framework
(Turner et al., 2003), relational scale and place, Khao Lak’s vulnerability can be traced to
13 environmental and sociopolitical factors that collectively contribute to the exposure,
sensitivity and resilience of the community. These factors are complex outcomes of
inextricably linked social norms and developmental and governance processes that have
evolved over space and time. Underlying these processes are the competing and politi-
cally charged agendas and scaled actions of government and industry stakeholders.

An examination of the Thai government’s Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan and
community responses clearly demonstrate the role that power distribution and political
preferences play in influencing the uneven distribution of resources and vulnerability.
While the plan is designed to benefit the six affected provinces equally, preexisting
weaknesses in governance structures and processes coupled with national and subdis-
trict governmental preferences simultaneously strengthened some communities while
marginalizing others. The failure to acknowledge and address these governance weak-
nesses not only compounds Khao Lak’s vulnerability to future stresses, but also inhibits
the long-term sustainability goals of the regional recovery plan. Four years after the
tsunami, corruption along with limited governmental capacity and financial constraints
at the subdistrict level are compromising the implementation and enforcement of
redevelopment regulations designed to decrease physical exposure to tsunamis and
storm surges. Limited access to credit continues to hinder full redevelopment while

302 Emma Calgaro and Kate Lloyd

compounding debt and lower tourist earnings have forced some business closures
(Calgaro et al., forthcoming). Given the limited success of government interventions, the
Khao Lak community drew support from the strong and multiscaled actions of provin-
cial and local tourism organizations. Instigated at the local level, these actions permeated
through to the regional, national and international level to create a network of socio-
political and financial supports that, in turn, strengthened the community’s adaptive
capacity and resilience. This demonstrates the importance of community-driven actions
that both respond to immediate needs and create new landscapes of power, recognition
and opportunity.

A deeper awareness of the underlying causes of Khao Lak’s vulnerability together
with the formulation of a tourism vulnerability framework has implications for both
Khao Lak and the wider tourism community. First, an improved understanding can
better inform the design and facilitate the implementation of appropriate resilience
building actions that are aimed at addressing the root causes of destination vulnerability.
Second, the scaled causal factors presented in Figure 4 provide a blueprint for under-
standing the vulnerability of other tourism communities facing similar livelihood
restrictions. Third, the tourism vulnerability framework presented in this paper provides
tourism communities with an analytical tool for analyzing their unique sociopolitical
conditions. But given the exploratory nature of this work, more research is required to
further develop, evaluate and refine the framework and substantiate the drivers of
vulnerability in tourism communities.

With this in mind, it is recommended that a full-scale vulnerability assessment of
the affected destinations covered by the Andaman Tourism Recovery Plan be under-
taken. The advantages of such an assessment are threefold. First, it adds longitudinal
depth to the analysis of vulnerable tourism communities. Second, it facilitates the
identification of commonalities and place-specific differences that influence different
patterns of vulnerability in the Andaman region. Finally, it creates an opportunity for
reevaluating and refining the theoretical framework and enables broader conclusions
to be made regarding the drivers that underlie the vulnerability of tourism commu-
nities. Tourism does have the potential to create economic growth and alleviate
poverty in regions facing resource scarcity. Incorporating vulnerability assessment into
tourism development strategies will ensure that these are achieved in a more sustain-
able way.


The research presented in this paper builds on the fieldwork conducted by the lead author (Calgaro,

2005) as part of a BA honours thesis. We gratefully acknowledge constructive feedback on an

earlier draft from Dale Dominey-Howes (University of New South Wales) and Robert Fagan

(Macquarie University) as well as Frank Thomalla (Stockholm Environment Institute) and Fiona

Miller (University of Melbourne), and that of the anonymous SJTG reviewers.


1 As of April 2008, room capacity had increased to 3225 (Phang Nga Tourism Association

representative, pers. comm., Khao Lak, 5 May 2008).


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