Monday, January 03, 2005

Tsunamis made us kinder and more humble - The Nation (Thailand)

REGIONAL PERSPECTIVE: Tsunamis made us kinder and more humble

Published on January 03, 2005

For a nation that is accustomed to nothing more severe than floods clogging the streets, canals and rice fields, the massive tsunami that struck last Sunday was a serious shock. But the waves have made us kinder and less arrogant.

The catastrophe also shattered the belief, long held dear by the Thai people, that their country is invincible in the face of any danger.
The Thais have great confidence in their destiny. We always see ourselves as Buddha’s country. Come what may, Phra Siam Devadhiraja will always at the critical moment protect us, ensuring our safety and well being. After all, we escape Mother Nature’s punishments every year during the monsoon season while other neighbouring countries, such as Vietnam and the Philippines, suffer untold losses year after year.
It has long been a widely held belief that Thailand’s unique geographical location, nestled at is in the heart of Southeast Asia between Indochina and South Asia, would save it from any natural threat from the Pacific or Indian Ocean . Thais even call their land the “Golden Peninsula”.
But the gigantic waves that swept across the Indian Ocean towards the South and Southeast Asian coastlines washed away this myth for good. What is miraculous is that it has been quickly replaced by a stronger sense of realism, determination and solidarity.
The destruction made us and our leaders search our souls, inspiring us to ask whether we had taken the power of nature for granted and to ponder what could be done to lessen the damage. We were caught naked without any preparations in place. More local and foreign lives could have been saved if the emergency response and rescue efforts had been sufficient and more efficient.
Even the technological ability to access real-time information on earthquakes and tsunamis, is meaningless if the officials concerned do not pay serious attention or prove themselves able to deliver early warnings in time. What’s worse, in this case they appear to have failed to even consider that the impossible might occur during the holiday season.
This catastrophe will have far-reaching psychological affects on the Thai people. Our sense of vulnerability will increase. This is the first time in our collective memory that we have experienced such devastation inside the country. The death toll could reach 7,000 as rescue efforts continue. This feeling will surely heighten the sense of resolution and solidarity that has appeared among the people in the affected areas and far beyond. In the face of disaster they have helped and comforted each other.
Despite the widely reported tragedies and human losses, stories have begun to emerge that have praised the generosity and kindness of local people. Even though they have been directly affected or devastated by family losses and in some cases were even injured, the local people were still able to show kindness and assistance to those whose needs were more urgent, especially distraught tourists. Private initiatives and generosity helped save lives. These common folks knew exactly what to do. They gave food, water and money to the neediest and provided shelter for the homeless.
While the public response, most of all the compassion, came naturally and in time, the bureaucrats were less responsive. Most of them were waiting for someone high up to tell them what to do. As everybody knows by now, they were waiting for instructions from Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, expecting him to step in and direct the rescue operation. Thaksin himself mentioned this point.
It is silly for them to think like this in times of crisis. Local authorities must take whatever steps are necessary to save lives and improve the situation. Over the past four years, Thaksin has been busy promoting the CEO-style of leadership, which clearly hampers local initiative and spontaneity. Lack of understanding, coordination and cooperation have been cited as key weaknesses in the official response.
So it was a bit out of place, if not self-serving, when he lashed out at local officials and agencies for their failure to pursue on-the-spot rescue operations. The biggest lesson of this situation is that no single person has the power to make a decision that will offset the effects of a disaster.
Finally, perhaps more than the ruling party Thai Rak Thai would like to admit, the seismic waves have humbled Thaksin and his arrogance, at least temporarily. The outpouring of international generosity and assistance has forced him to eat his own words. In normal times he would raise his eyebrows and condemn foreign countries for interfering in internal affairs or for looking down on us for our inability to assist ourselves.
His comments over the weekend showed just a hint of humility, an emotion he had never before exhibited. He said that he could not refuse the emergency and humanitarian assistance that had arrived or was on the way. That would be impolite. Still, offers for help from foreign leaders have been turned down. They were told that if the country needed anything, a request would be made.
Since it came to power in 2001, the Thaksin government has manifested its independence by rejecting foreign assistance. Thailand is no longer a recipient country, he has reiterated, but a donor country. He has also boasted about Thailand’s rapid economic progress, claiming that the Kingdom will soon join the ranks of industrial countries. Did the great wave mock his pride?
It is hoped that we all learned from the devastation. If we emerge from the wreckage with humility and a better understanding of ourselves, especially our limits and potential, then we will be a better people who can create a better nation.

The Nation


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