Indian Ocean tsunami: Catastrophe for Sweden

The Asian tsunami whose deadly waves have created havoc along the coasts of two continents is the single most devastating global natural disaster of our time.

The Tsunami has also become the biggest natural catastrophe of our time to affect Sweden. Among the far more than 100,000 killed are at least two thousand western tourists. Many of those, whose attempt to celebrate their Christmas in holiday paradises like Khao Lak and Phuket was turned into a hell, came from the winter cold of the Nordic countries.

Thai authorities believe that at least 80 per cent of the still 6,000 missing persons in that country are dead – beyond the nearly 2,000 deaths already counted. Half of those are expected to be foreign tourists, like the proportion among the already registered deaths.

In Sweden, which seems to be the single most affected country, most of the 1,350 still missing charter tourists are now believed to be dead, on top of the hundreds already identified. On top of those, there are probably more deaths among the more than 3,000 missing who have gone to the area on their own. This makes the Swedish element of the Asian catastrophe the single worst disaster that has struck the country since the "Spanish disease" following the First World War.

Political scandal

At the same time the catastrophe is also developing into a major political scandal. There is enormous gratitude among those affected for the unselfish help that has been given from poor Thai people as well as from tourists of different nationalities who have stayed behind to offer themselves as voluntary relief workers. But just as great as their praise for them is their angry criticism against the Swedish government and its Foreign Office (UD) and embassy in Thailand for the arrogant lack of both information and help forthcoming.

Since a couple of days ago, a few extra aeroplanes from Swedish travel companies have started to evacuate Swedish tourists. But the first three planes, including an ambulance plane, that the Swedish government has organised arrived only today – on the 30th of December.

This slow reaction from the government is likely to cost further lives among the many wounded and infected. They have been compelled to wait for several days for evacuation – at best in overcrowded and in some cases very badly equipped Thai hospitals. In one hospital in Phang Nga – a place with bad hygiene and without air conditioning in the local heat – all the patients are believed to be infected. Aftonbladet (the biggest Daily newspaper in Scandinavia) of 30 December reported: "Hundreds of Swedes who have been rescued now risk dying of infections in Thai hospitals".

"They have no medicine, no air conditioning. The UD should have sent ambulance flights earlier," says Lotta Knutsson at Fritidsresor (a travel company). "The first ambulance flight takes off today."

Foreign minister, Laila Freivalds, who did not return from her holiday until more than 30 hours after the catastrophe became known, has now, in an act of self-preservation, gone down to Thailand. "She is welcome if she rolls up her sleeves and starts work," says a Swedish volunteer.

Another volunteer in Thailand is reported as saying: "Everything is so disorganised. We trusted the UD, but where are they, where is the Swedish military. Get them down here and let them start digging for bodies (in the sand). The Swedish church, where is it? We need people who can help. We thought the embassy would move down here and ‘point with their whole hand’ (give a lead). But there is no organisation at all".

"The anger triggered by the slow handling of the situation by the government is monumental", writes Lena Mellin in an Aftonbladet commentary. The newspaper’s telephone exchange is reported to be blocked by furious citizens.

In an attempt to save the government from the anger, Prime Minister Göran Persson has declared a period of "National Unity" with the support of other party leaders in the parliament. January 1 has been proclaimed a National Day of Mourning.

There is however now an incredible desire among ordinary people to do everything possible to help and express their sympathy with the victims of this catastrophe. Very large amounts of money are now streaming into the various relief organisations. There will also be a tremendous interest in discussing all aspects of this disaster, including a socialist programme that can prevent future repetitions of the catastrophe and reconstruct the worst affected areas around the Indian Ocean.

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