Typhoon Morakot was a turning point for the administration of President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九). Its mishandling of the disaster response made a mockery of the slogan — “We’re ready” — adopted by Ma’s campaign team during the 2008 presidential election. After the Morakot fiasco, Ma’s popularity rating plunged from 70 percent to just over 30, and never really recovered. It’s been two years since the typhoon wreaked havoc and the government is still hoping to pick itself up and dust itself off. It’s a shame Ma can’t stop putting his foot in his mouth.
Ma, keen to show solidarity with Morakot victims, spent Saturday in Majia Township (瑪家), Pingtung County, in a new “permanent housing” unit built for those left homeless by the disaster. He said it was a pleasant experience, describing his stay as balmy and comfortable and likening the area to Provence, France, and “Peach Blossom Land” — the latter being the paradise on earth described in a popular Chinese fable.
No sooner had he uttered the word “Provence” than the objections started pouring in. The reference certainly didn’t sit well with many of the disaster’s victims, and Web babble started to question whether Ma thought this was all a holiday. The pan-green camp said his attitude was reminiscent of that of Emperor Hui (晉惠帝) of the Jin Dynasty, infamous for not understanding the plight of ordinary people.
As part of his damage control exercise, Ma took to Facebook to explain that his reference to Provence was meant to express how tranquil and fragrant the area was. He said he didn’t want his words to be distorted by others.
What was Ma thinking, comparing “permanent housing” in a disaster area to living in Provence, with its fine sunshine and blue skies? It’s perfectly possible that he was trying to praise the reconstruction project, but he only succeeded in rubbing salt into the wounds of Morakot’s still-traumatized victims. The allusion was entirely inappropriate. It’s one thing for the president to swan around for a day, but it’s another thing to actually live in the devastated area.
Premier Wu Den-yih (吳敦義) was moved to tears during a press conference on Monday to mark the second anniversary of the disaster, recalling how people had been forced to leave their homes. The opposition sniffed about crocodile tears, given that Wu wasn’t involved in the relief efforts at the time. However, Wu has been responsible for the reconstruction efforts and many of the victims have been openly critical of the government’s record.
The central government’s reconstruction program, costing more than NT$1 billion (US$34.5 million), is seriously behind schedule. The Indigenous Peoples Action Coalition of Taiwan dispatched a group of disaster victims to Taipei to protest the glaring disparity between policy pronouncements and actual deeds, saying that they wanted their own homes back. They also condemned the Ministry of Transport and Communications’ decision not to continue work on two highways they say are key routes connecting their areas with the national road network, without which they cannot ship their produce around Taiwan.
There is quite a difference between the lives of these people and those living in Provence. The government has neglected the psychological and social importance of losing one’s home, and of having to eke out a living in an unfamiliar environment. The reconstruction effort has been found deeply wanting.
There is also a growing divide between Ma himself and the Chinese Nationalist Party’s (KMT) way of governing the country, which is felt most keenly in the center and south. Ma won brownie points in the 2008 campaign for his “long-stay” visits, but three years on any political currency he earned has long been spent. His trip to Pingtung over the weekend was an attempt to buy more currency and help close the divide, but it seems to have had the opposite effect.
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