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Revisiting The Shock Doctrine in the Wake of Haiti Disaster

Editor's note: In the aftermath of the January 12th earthquake that ravaged (and continues to ravage) Haiti, as we witness the bravery and dignity of survivors and relief workers, we are wise to examine the deeper outlines of the historical roots that created the conditions for such a massive loss of life.  We must simultaneously, however, begin to ponder what lies ahead for the people of Haiti as they emerge from the immediate calamity of the quake.  As Naomi Klein meticulously revealed in her 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine, we understand that disasters of this kind can be moments of great upheaval and uncertainty, and that in these moments space is created that paves the way for new policies and new realities to emerge.  In the following excerpt from her book, Klein explores those who were able to resist the worst inclinations of "disaster capitalism" - in this case Thai villagers whose homes were decimated by the India Ocean tsunami - by harnessing the power of community and solidarity to supplant the role that financial interests and neo-liberal elites sought to play in the aftermath of crisis:

Despite all the successful attempts to exploit the 2004 tsunami, memory also proved to be an effective tool of resistance in some areas where it struck, particularly in Thailand. Dozens of coastal villages were flattened by the wave, but unlike in Sri Lanka, many Thai settlements were successfully rebuilt within months. The difference did not come from the government. Thailand's politicians were just as eager as those elsewhere to use the storm as an excuse to evict fishing people and hand over land tenure to large resorts. Yet what set Thailand apart was that villagers approached all government promises with intense skepticism and refused to wait patiently in camps for an official reconstruction plan. Instead, within weeks, hundreds of villagers engaged in what they called land "reinvasions."

They marched past the armed guards on the payroll of developers, tools in hand, and began marking off the sites where their old houses had been. In some cases, reconstruction began immediately. "I am willing to bet my life on this land, because it is ours," said Ratree Kongwatmai, who lost most of her family in the tsunami.

The most daring reinvasions were performed by Thailand's indigenous fishing peoples called the Moken, or "sea gypsies." After centuries of disenfranchisement, the Moken had no illusions that a benevolent state would give them a decent piece of land in exchange for the coastal properties that had been seized. So, in one dramatic case, the residents of the Ban Tung Wah Village in the Phang Nga province "gathered themselves together and marched right back home, where they encircled their wrecked village with rope, in a symbolic gesture to mark their land ownership," explained a report by a Thai NGO. "With the entire community camping out there, it became difficult for the authorities to chase them away, especially given the intense media attention being focused on tsunami rehabilitation." In the end, the villagers negotiated a deal with the government to give up part of their oceanfront property in exchange for legal security on the rest of their ancestral land. Today, the rebuilt village is a showcase of Moken culture, complete with museum, community centre, school and market. "Now, officials from the sub-district come to Ban Tung Wah to learn about 'people-managed tsunami rehabilitation' while researchers and university students turn up there by the bus-full to study 'indigenous people's wisdom.'"

All along the Thai coast where the tsunami hit, this kind of direct-action reconstruction is the norm. The key to their success, community leaders say, is that "people negotiate for their land rights from a position of being in occupation"; some have dubbed the practice "negotiating with your hands." Thailand's survivors have also insisted on a different kind of aid-rather than settling for handouts, they have demanded the tools to carry out their own reconstruction. Dozens of Thai architecture students and professors, for example, volunteered to help community members design their new houses and draw their own rebuilding plans; master boat builders trained villagers to make their own, more sophisticated fishing vessels. The results are communities stronger than they were before the wave. The houses on stilts built by Thai villagers in Ban Tung Wah and Baan Nairai are beautiful and sturdy; they are also cheaper, larger and cooler than the sweltering prefab cubicles on offer there from foreign contractors. A manifesto drafted by a coalition of Thai tsunami survivor communities explains the philosophy: "The rebuilding work should be done by local communities themselves, as much as possible. Keep contractors out, let communities take responsibility for their own housing."

Uniting all these examples of people rebuilding for themselves is a common theme: participants say they are not just repairing buildings but healing themselves. It makes perfect sense. The universal experience of living through a great shock is the feeling of being completely powerless: in the face of awesome forces, parents lose the ability to save their children, spouses are separated, homes-places of protection-become death traps. The best way to recover from helplessness turns out to be helping-having the right to be part of a communal recovery. "Reopening our school says this is a very special community, tied together by more than location but by spirituality, by bloodlines and by a desire to come home," said the assistant principal of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

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