Typhoon Morakot – A More Objective Report
Typhoon turns into a political storm
By Cindy Sui
TAIPEI – It was just a routine viewers’ survey, but a CNN online “poll” on whether Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou should step down over his administration’s response to Typhoon Morakot made headlines in newspapers and top-of-the-hour TV news in Taiwan, with traditionally anti-ruling party outlets running wild with it.
“CNN poll shows 80% people want Ma to step down,” shouted a front-page headline on Liberty Times. Even television stations typically partial towards Ma played up the story.
The killer typhoon that caught everyone by surprise with its extraordinarily destructive power, pounding Taiwan with record rainfall from August 6 to 10 and causing massive mudslides which killed an estimated 500 people, is turning out to be Ma’s biggest challenge yet as president.
Since taking office in May 2008 after winning 58% of the votes in the presidential election, his approval ratings have slid due to the economic downturn and concerns about his China policy, but now they are at a near record low of 29%.
The hardest-hit areas – Kaohsiung, Pingtung and Tainan counties, are all headed by officials from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party (DPP). Little focus, however, has been placed on mistakes made by local officials, despite the argument that they should have been the most aware of the local rainfalls, flooding and the potential risk of landslides affecting villages in their areas.
That’s not surprising, said Andrew Yang, secretary general of the Taipei-based Council of Advanced Policy Studies and a former government advisor under ex-president Lee Teng-hui.
“People had already experienced inefficiency and incompetence at the lower levels, so they were looking to Ma Ying-jeou for leadership,” said Yang. “One way or another, the system should’ve worked to reduce damages and loss of lives, but it didn’t. That’s why people are targeting Ma Ying-jeou. They want to get the problem solved. People want results.”
It’s still unclear what went wrong. Ma and the Executive Yuan, his cabinet, have only been in office a little over a year and they did not create the disaster response system – it was already there.
Information revealed since the typhoon hit indicates that the Central Weather Bureau initially predicted low rainfalls for the south and had no idea the typhoon would bring about 2,800 mm of rainfall in just four days – half or two-thirds of the total amount of annual rainfall in the areas. Only when rains started falling hard did the bureau steadily upgrade its rainfall forecast.
But it is unclear whether officials at the National Fire Agency’s disaster relief center were informed and if they had been informed, why they had not reacted promptly to alert local officials to evacuate residents.
With so many agencies that could’ve and should’ve done something, it was unclear why everyone dropped the ball.
Ma himself gave the impression in a recent news conference that he himself is not clear about the chain of command that should have been followed in these situations. He repeatedly pointed out that in the seven hardest-hit areas, thousands of lives were saved in three or four of these areas because the village or township chiefs there had had the smarts to evacuate their residents, some of them having undergone training in this.
But this raises the question – why was it left to local officials, some of whom might not be fully aware or informed, to decide whether or not to evacuate people?
The Ministry of National Defense has been roundly blamed for not sending out troops until the third day of the typhoon, and then for not sending enough.
In the worst-hit village of Siaolin, where nearly 400 people are believed to have been buried by a mudslide, it would not have made much difference. Sides of mountains near the remote village located in a narrow valley at the foothills of Alishan came crashing down on the village shortly after dawn on Sunday, August 9. Residents said that due to damaged telecommunications lines, no one outside knew, and help did not come until the next day.
Despite repeated questions from the media about what Ma was doing during the days of the typhoon disaster, he has not answered them or revealed how much information he was given.
“He didn’t receive abundant information,” said Yang.
But that remains unclear.
“Did they [the government] have sufficient information? Or did they have the necessary information but made wrong judgments?” asked Ethan Tseng Yi-ren, a political scientist from the National Sun Yat-sen University in southern Taiwan’s Kaohsiung City, traditionally a DPP stronghold. “If we have such types of civil servants who have the necessary information but still failed to act accordingly, then that’s bad.”
While Ma has vowed to launch a thorough investigation and punish those found guilty of dereliction of duty, the media have also questioned whether he will punish himself, with some people calling for his resignation.
People, perhaps long frustrated by a government system notorious for being bureaucratic and unresponsive, are venting their frustration. Perhaps because Ma tends to apologize easily and appears to be caring, he is getting an earful.
“What’s interesting is that people who are traditionally critical of the [ruling] Kuomintang (KMT) and don’t watch TVBS, which traditionally supports Ma Ying-jeou, are now watching TVBS instead of the TV channels that tend to criticize Ma. They are interested in seeing how TVBS is scolding Ma Ying-jeou,” said Tseng.
The fallout from the typhoon would have an impact on elections in December for county and city leaders, Tseng said. “It will definitely have a negative impact on the KMT,” said Tseng. “But it’s unclear how great the impact will be because people are also upset at local officials in the south.”
At play in the unfettered criticism of Ma’s government are lingering suspicions about his intentions in building closer economic and trade ties with China, Tseng said. Since taking over as president, Ma and the KMT have adopted unprecedented measures to improve cross-strait ties, including launching direct flights, shipping and postal links, allowing thousands of Chinese tourists to visit each day, and opening the door to Chinese investment in about 100 sectors, including public infrastructure.
What he plans to do next is actually what most worries Taiwanese suspicious of China – negotiations on an “economic cooperation framework agreement” (ECFA). Similar to a free-trade agreement, talks will begin with China in October over the ECFA and Ma hopes to reach agreement by next year.
Ma believes this is important so that Taiwan does not lose out as China signs free-trade agreements with other countries, giving them a competitive edge in lower tariffs or tariff-free trade with Beijing. But critics worry it will not only hurt Taiwanese local industry but also harm the island’s sovereignty.
“Politics is involved in some of the criticism against Ma Ying-jeou. Taiwanese people won’t say ‘It’s because I’m unhappy with your China policy’, but of course in the back of their mind, they think this,” Tseng said. “Come October, when ECFA negotiations begin, the opposition party will use this opportunity to say this government is not worthy of trust.”
The DPP and its chairwoman Tsai Ing-wen have been conspicuously absent in the typhoon debates. That’s intentional, said Tseng, as they do not want the public to view the criticisms against Ma as the two parties going at each other’s throat again.
What’s missing in the debate, analysts said, is an honest, objective look at what is wrong with a system that allowed hundreds of villagers to be buried in a mudslide during a major typhoon. Even China, which Taiwan often looks down on in terms of its standards of governance, routinely evacuates as many as a million people when typhoons approach.
To be fair, this typhoon was extraordinary. It was slow-moving, staying three to four days, unlike most typhoons which leave within a day or two. And while it was not considered a powerful typhoon, it brought much more rain than most typhoons.
Still, unless the public and the government look at the root of the problem, instead of just calling for resignations of this or that official, the problem could reoccur, analysts said.
Tough questions will also have to be answered – including whether Taiwan will suffer more such extreme weather conditions due to climate change and whether it should allow people to live in dangerously located mountain villages.
“Everyone is criticizing Ma’s ability, but by not analyzing why this typhoon caused so much damage, the people at the grassroots will suffer again,” said Tseng.
The media focus of late is allegations that Premier Liu Chao-shiuan had the nerve to get a hair cut or have his hair dyed on August 11, at the height of the rescue effort, and that the Executive Yuan’s secretary general Hsueh Hsiang-chuan, who is responsible for coordination between ministries, had a Taiwanese Father’s Day dinner with his father-in-law on August 8 when the typhoon brought flooding to the south. Hsueh’s initial defensive remarks were, “It was Father’s Day! And we only ate yam porridge.”
Defense Minister Chen Chao-min was criticized for not dispatching soldiers in time and dispatching too few troops to rescue typhoon victims, while Vice Foreign Minister Andrew Hsia was slammed for initially rejecting international aid.
Hsueh, Chen and Hsia have all tendered their resignations, but the premier has not accepted them yet.
President Ma said he will not resign, insisting his duties were needed at this time. He has promised the results of an investigation into wrongdoings in the disaster-relief fiasco will be revealed next month, and that for now, the focus should be on resettlement and reconstruction.
Analysts said it’s unlikely that Ma will step down. According to Taiwan’s constitution, he must serve his full term. And if the opposition party were to try to recall him, it would need a majority in the Legislative Yuan, which it does not have as Ma’s KMT party controls more than two-thirds of the seats.
What Ma will have to do in the coming days is take a hard look at his cabinet, including the premier, and see if changes need to be made, analysts said. From the beginning, his team has been criticized as being inexperienced. Liu, while reputed as a clean official, has only served a short stint as transportation minister in the 1990s. Coming from a chemistry background, almost all his experience is in academia, where he headed two universities.
According to the constitution, the president is in charge of defense and foreign affairs, while the day-to-day running of the government is left to the premier. Ma, a trained lawyer, has been strict about following this formula, but time and again he has shot himself in the foot for doing so, taking criticism afterwards for not being on hand and involved at a time when the highest-ranking leader was needed.
What Ma has done the most since the typhoon disaster struck is to apologize. He has also met with many bereaved family members, not shying from their cries of anger and complaints, and is promising a variety of assistance, including living stipends, temporary housing, rental subsidies and school meals. It seems to be making a difference, at least to some people, even though the media continue to be tough on him.
The host and guests speakers of a local TV station’s on-air panel discussion on Wednesday to criticize Ma were surprised when the first of several incoming calls from the audience criticized the media, not the president. “All you do is spend all day scolding Ma Ying-jeou. Let’s unite and not differentiate between blue [KMT] or green [DPP],” said one woman on the phone.
Ultimately, Ma’s survival will depend on whether he can meet people’s demands and fix the problems in Taiwan’s disaster response system, said analysts. “I think he is capable of doing this,” Yang said. “He’s putting his ears to the ground.”
[Note: My opinionated introduction was slightly revised in light of Steve and my discussion in comments #1-#6. Specifically, in the first version, I may have implied that Steve took pleasure out of political jockeying off of the misfortunes of others – which was incorrect, and which wasn’t my intent.]
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