“Thailand has failed its people”

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 ├╝ber-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.

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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.

The Discussion: 6 Comments

Thousands of ordinary Thais open their homes to stranded peers and Western tourists, in an enormous display of generosity

It’s nice that they come together, especially after reading our own reports on WTC survivors being unable to get water or $2 pairs of slippers from their peers.

December 30, 2004 @ 1:21 pm | Comment

This could well be orders of magnitude worse than 9/11, even in some European countries. For example, Sweden may have lost as many as 1,000 citizens in the tsunami. In population terms, that’s the equivalent for Sweden of ten 9/11s.

But of course those who had the least are suffering most. The injured Westerners will go home; but the locals will be living with this catastrophe for years and years.

Of course [warning: political content ahead] some on the Right are telling people to withhold donations, because (a) charity is evil and (b) some of it might go to (gasp! horror!) Wrong-Thinking Brown People.

I don’t know what to call people like that, but certainly not “human.”

December 30, 2004 @ 4:30 pm | Comment

some on the Right are telling people to withhold donations

Are you kidding me? Please be kidding. Do you have any links?

December 30, 2004 @ 6:49 pm | Comment

That would be unabashed evil. I haven’t heard about that until now and find it incomprehensible, but nothing wingnuts do or say surprises me anymore.

December 30, 2004 @ 8:10 pm | Comment

I’ve seen a couple of anti-charity links on the ‘right’ side of the Daou Report.

And here’s another:

So if we do not immediately respond with immediate compassion when Asians suffer hardship, I say that we are not to blame. First we must verify the peaceful intentions of those stricken. I, for one, do not want to feed a future terrorist. Sorry, folks, but there is a war on. I want my brown/yellow/tan great grandchildren to be the future residents of America, not Ghengis Khan’s.

This from someone who refers to himself as a “centrist.”

December 31, 2004 @ 3:24 am | Comment

Clarification: the mainstream ultra-libertarian perspective is that charity is OK, but the government shouldn’t be in the disaster-relief business.

December 31, 2004 @ 3:46 am | Comment

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