Former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝) yesterday accused the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) of preventing a private search-and-rescue team from going to Japan following the devastating earthquake and tsunami, adding that Tokyo had caved in to pressure from Beijing in rejecting the team’s request to participate in rescue operations.
Addressing International Headquarters Search and Rescue, Taiwan, Lee said the group had asked for assistance from the ministry to participate in Japan’s relief efforts after the disaster on March 11.
However, the ministry told them to stay put and asked China Airlines (中華航空) to withhold issuing plane tickets for the group, Lee said.
“The first 72 hours are the most critical and we were racing against time,” he said. “I was very worried when I heard the responses from the foreign ministry and Interchange Association, Japan, [Japan’s representative office in Taiwan in the absence of official diplomatic ties].”
Lee said the rescue team thought that rather than wait in Taiwan, they should do so in Tokyo. After they contacted EVA Air (長榮航空), the airline agreed to transport the 35 members to Japan on March 13. However, the Japanese government did not allow the team to join the rescue operation until March 15, he said.
Lee made the remarks while hosting a lunch for the team members, who returned on March 18. They were the first international rescue team to arrive and the last to leave after the discovery of radiation leaks.
Lee said the team was formed in 1999 during his presidency after the devastating 921 Earthquake. A Japanese consortium had donated ￥300 million (US$3.57 million) and allocated ￥100 million for the purchase or upgrading of equipment for the team.
Lee blamed Tokyo’s delay in giving permission on Beijing, saying its actions hampered rescue efforts.
“Humanitarian assistance must not have any political consideration,” he said. “It cannot be judged by ideology, or people will suffer.”
Lee said the Chinese rescue team, which arrived the day after the Taiwanese team, also made a fuss after seeing the Republic of China (ROC) flag on the latter, and said it was the flag of the “Taiwan area.”
Team commander Lu Cheng-tsung (呂正宗) said that while international rescue teams were thankful for his team’s help, the Chinese team was hostile to it. Lu said the 15-member Chinese team, consisting mostly of government officials, told Taiwan’s national rescue team to return to Taiwan.
Lee said he telephoned the team captain every night to offer encouragement, knowing they worked under dire circumstances as there was no water, gas or electricity in temperatures below 0°C.
Wang Mei-chu (王美珠), chairperson of International Headquarters Search and Rescue, Taiwan, said Lee thought Taiwan needed a private search-and-rescue team so the country could repay the international community for its help when Taiwan was in trouble.
She said the ministry had told them that it was “inappropriate” for her team to go because the administration would send a national team there.
“I told the foreign ministry that there are certain things the national team cannot do, such as flying the national flag, but we can as a private group,” she said. “The administration should make good use of the private sector.”
Lu recounted how one of the Chinese rescue team members pointed to the ROC flag on his uniform and said it was the flag of the “Taiwan area.”