A writer for the New Republic in Bangkok gives an amazing account of how the Thai people are reacting to the horrors of the tsunami, and how the government dropped the ball.
Bangkok may have a skyline to match any city, an über-modern subway, and Savile Row-suited bankers; but facing this disaster, Thailand’s government fails its people, even as individual rescue workers perform superhuman tasks. The Nation, the best Thai newspaper, reports that even after the earthquake off Indonesia, which would trigger the deadly waves, the Bangkok government played down the possibility that a tsunami could hit Thailand, in part because it didn’t want to issue an evacuation order that, if no tsunami came, might have hurt tourism, Thailand’s biggest earner of foreign exchange. Thailand’s national civic defense organization, supposedly designed to handle disasters, suffers from a lack of basic equipment and seems unable to coordinate among relief workers; without enough government-supplied preservative, bodies quickly decompose in the tropical sun, creating a horrific stench. Only after the tsunami does the government issue suggestions on how citizens should act when faced by a killer wave. “Had the officials in charge that morning been working with a clear-cut, well-rehearsed, and properly communicated procedure, a tsunami warning would have been sounded,” notes Nation group editor-in-chief Sutichai Yoon.
Instead, Thais, like people in most developing nations, turn for help not to the state but to those they have always trusted–family members, close friends, religious figures. Thousands of ordinary Thais open their homes to stranded peers and Western tourists, in an enormous display of generosity, and even the normally nasty immigration authorities help visitors whose passports have washed away. Volunteers from the country’s major hospitals jet to the south to help out, and many individuals, Thai companies, and members of the royal family quickly give blood or set up private donation funds to compensate families of the dead. Thai friends–and people in America–barrage me with emails and phone calls to make sure I’m okay. I am. Paradise isn’t.
His descriptions of what’s going on over there is wrenching. Please pardon me for quoting a lengthy snippet, but this is great reporting I want to remember:
At one Thai Airways counter, shell-shocked Western tourists up from southern resort islands like Phuket, where over a thousand visitors have already perished, try to figure out how to get home, given that the only possessions they retain are the torn clothes on their backs. Frantic, screaming European, Japanese, and American diplomats grab passengers arriving off planes from the south like Third World taxi touts, demanding any information about survivors. Nearby, Bangkok Thais who have family in the south stand huddled around televisions, scanning for news about the dead, and wailing–unusual in a country where openly expressing negative emotions is discouraged–at what they hear. Screams of “Ay! Ay!” ring out, and yells of “Na sonsa”–“I’m sorry.” Some older women collapse at the televised sight of whole southern villages washed away and bloated dead bodies piling up on previously squeaky-white sand beaches. The Thai prime minister, a go-getter CEO-type who normally grins constantly, comes on the television; he looks utterly wrecked.
The numbers pile up like a reaper’s pinball machine. Five hundred in Thailand. One thousand. Then 2,000. More. Forty thousand across the region. Then 50,000. Eighty thousand. One-hundred thousand. No one is spared. Thai friends’ relatives are dead. My local fixer’s family members are dead. Nearly everyone on Phi Phi island, a prime resort immortalized by the Leonardo DiCaprio film The Beach, is dead; only two hotels on the entire island still stand. It seems half of Sri Lanka is dead. The Thai king’s grandson is dead. The former finance minister is dead. Last year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit cover girl clings to a tree in the water off western Thailand for eight hours; otherwise, she too would be dead. I wonder, guiltily, whether the daughter of a family friend who’d called me in early December to ask advice on Thailand and whom I assured the Thai beach resorts were safe–from bandits or sex tourists, not from a series of giant waves–is dead.
In the Thai south, the situation is Dantesque. Searching for relatives, dazed survivors wander Thailand’s beaches, where bodies are being stacked. Many worry that aftershocks will return. Pediatric wards reportedly are packed with children wailing for their parents. Thai dentists are rushing to identify the dead from their jaw records before they must be buried in mass graves; whole primary school classes have been washed away together with their teachers. At local hospitals, foreign tourists tearfully receive news of lost loved ones; thousands are still missing in Phang Nga bay, an achingly beautiful region of limestone karsts rising straight out of the warm water like a moonscape and now one of the hardest-hit areas. For some reason, of all the Western travelers, Scandinavians seem to have taken the brunt of the hit–diplomats say this may be the worst disaster ever in Norwegian history. The fragile coral ecosystem that made Thailand famous lies in ruin. Cars and three-wheeled tuk-tuks have been upended and tossed by the waves into bizarre, abstract patterns all over beach towns. A few stiff-upper-lipped vacationers–Brits, probably–reportedly return to the remaining beaches to sunbathe, along with one unshakeable Thai masseuse.
Nearly a week later, and I suspect we still haven’t even begun to fathom the extent of this catastrophe. 911 changed everything for America. This event will change a huge portion of the world for generations, if not forever.
Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.