Seven days after Typhoon Morakot wreaked havoc in southern Taiwan, President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) finally realized how serious the situation is and called a national security meeting. The government’s slow and disorganized response to the disaster has angered victims and stirred criticism across the political spectrum and from the international community.
Ma’s Cabinet ministers may hold doctorate degrees, but they have failed the test this time, with Minister of the Interior Liao Liou-yi (廖了以) and local government heads busy blaming each other while the military “awaited orders” to join rescue efforts.
As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, Ma should have ordered well-trained and equipped military forces to start rescue work a week ago, but instead only called the national security meeting after the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had sparked public discontent by declining offers of assistance from abroad.
The nine directives Ma issued at the national security meeting contain too many empty words. Ma’s call for a special act for post-disaster reconstruction is necessary to secure sufficient funds, but it is nothing new. No presidential order is required to set up a post-disaster recovery committee, either, since it is already required under the Disaster Prevention and Protection Act (災害防救法). Restoring communication and transportation in disaster areas and providing real-time information to victims are also critical to disaster relief, but the government has done poorly in these areas.
Ma thinks the central government’s emergency response apparatus is satisfactory and has called for improvements at the local level and for outdated equipment to be replaced. The main reason for the disorganized relief efforts, however, is precisely the incompetence of the Central Emergency Operations Center. As an ad hoc structure, it has no accumulated experience. It failed to establish unified command at central and local levels and to ensure efficient coordination and communication between the ministries. Resources have not been used quickly and effectively.
Information on the extent of the disaster and what kinds of aid are required was collected by the media faster than government departments.
The typhoon, landslides and floods have awakened the government to the importance of land and water management. Ma has called for a series of public hearings to be held before a draft national land planning act is put forward, seemingly unaware that a proposal was already drawn up years ago, but could not be enacted because of opposition from Ma’s own Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT). It remains to be seen whether Ma can finally get this proposal passed when he takes up the post of KMT chairman.
Typhoon Morakot has fully exposed Ma’s weak character, his indecision and lack of empathy with victims on the front line. His crisis management skills have proved inferior to those of former president Lee Teng-hui (李登輝), former Taiwan provincial governor James Soong (宋楚瑜) and even former president Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁). Ma’s weak leadership and the Cabinet’s tardy response have wiped out respect for the government just as villages were swept away by the flood.
Despite all its failures, the government seems to think that its emergency response has been quick and sufficient, but that is not how it looks to the public. The KMT’s luck has run out. When local government elections are held at the end of this year, voters will surely snap Ma and his party out of their complacency.
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