Man-Made Disasters

BANGKOK, THAILAND -- On December 26, when the tsunamis struck Asia, I was in Thailand. Like nearly everyone in Bangkok, I turned to any television I could find. The local Thai channels captured the breadth of the devastation, showing grim photos of southern beaches that looked like someone had swept away all the vegetation and human life with a fine comb. Clearly stunned by the magnitude, Thai and foreign newscasters called the giant waves a once-in-a-lifetime event.

In many ways, they were -- a catastrophe of biblical scale unmatched by any recent natural disaster. When I flew down to southern Thailand to see for myself, I found an entire region in mourning, Thais rushing to the beaches to search for loved ones or following the news, shocked and dazed, like Americans in the wake of September 11 or John F. Kennedy's assassination.

But in some respects, the event seemed familiar to me. Shortly after the tsunamis hit, conflicting rumors swirled throughout Thailand about the extent of the devastation, and the initial Thai relief effort was uncoordinated and chaotic. The national civil-defense organization seemed unable to make decisions about how to allocate relief resources. Worse, the Thai press was soon reporting that the government knew, roughly an hour before the tsunamis hit, that the earthquake in nearby Indonesia might cause seismic sea waves. Yet Bangkok had chosen not to issue an evacuation warning for the southern beaches.

All this reminded me of a visit I'd made to Thailand the previous year, when the country was threatened by a major outbreak of avian (bird) flu, which was spreading across Asia at the time. As with the tsunamis -- and with the previous SARS epidemic in 2003 -- Thailand's increasingly authoritarian government, run by Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, initially denied that anything was wrong. Thailand's neutered press and civil society, threatened by the government and co-opted by Thaksin, whose family has bought into important media outlets, essentially played along with the bird-flu cover-up. Civil servants also said little, even as the crisis worsened. (Over the last four years, Thaksin has replaced or retired most independent thinkers in the government.) And even when the government began to admit the scope of the virus (after several Thai children had already died), Thaksin had created such a culture of top-down rule that important officials seemed paralyzed, unable to decisively launch a cull of potentially infected birds.

Thailand is hardly unique. Over the past five years, many Asian governments have become more authoritarian -- sometimes with the tacit acceptance of the White House, which has prioritized counterterrorism cooperation over human rights among its Asian allies. And in the wake of the tsunamis, the flaws of these pseudo-authoritarian regimes -- secrecy, a lack of accountability for their mismanagement, which results in poor decision-making -- have spelled disaster for their people.

In Thailand, the United States has said far too little about Thaksin's abuses. In Malaysia, since September 11, 2001, the country's long-ruling United Malays National Organisation party has utilized a law called the Internal Security Act, which allows detention without charge, to crack down on the leading opposition party, Parti Islam Se-Malaysia. The White House has not seriously condemned Malaysia's use of the law, instead praising the Malaysians for their counterterrorism cooperation. In Burma (a k a Myanmar), the thuggish, totalitarian regime recently extended the house arrest of pro-democracy opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

In Pakistan, meanwhile, General Pervez Musharaff has rolled back the limited democratic gains made in the 1990s, appointing himself to another term as army chief -- essentially extending his term as de facto dictator. Washington has rewarded this behavior by offering Pakistan the title of major non–NATO ally and authorizing a new package of arms sales to Islamabad. And in Indonesia, the government had allowed the army to pursue a scorched-earth campaign in the province of Aceh, destroying whole civilian populations while battling an insurgent group. Overall, in fact, Amnesty International reports that evidence shows human-rights abuses are on the rise in Asia primarily among those nations allied with the United States in the war on terrorism.

Washington has said little about this creeping Asian authoritarianism, but a disaster -- whether tsunamis, bird flu, or SARS -- tears down facades. In Burma, a country with more than 1,500 miles of coastline, the government barred journalists, sealed its coastline, and blocked aid workers from surveying the ruins, perhaps worried that the damage would make the government seem vulnerable. The New Light of Myanmar, the junta's state newspaper, reported shortly after the disaster that Burma's beaches were still “thronged with vacationers.” (One foreign journalist, from the London Sunday Telegraph, happened to be in Burma at the time; he reported Burmese fishermen watching home after home ripped away into the water.) In China, the regime covered up the extent of its SARS crisis, contributing to SARS deaths across the world, as the disease spread from country to country. And in Indonesia, while individual relief workers performed Herculean tasks in the wake of the tsunamis, the local press reported that the army was continuing its offensive in Aceh, even as the devastated province recovered from the disaster.

In Thailand, Thaksin ordered an investigation into the initial tsunami response, but few Thais believed any culprits would be punished beyond the head of the Meteorological Department (which might have provided a warning), who was transferred. Thaksin had previously ordered investigations into other government missteps like the bird-flu crisis without ever holding anyone accountable. After all, the real culprit was Thaksin himself, who'd neutered the kind of independent thinking necessary to respond to crises. Officials were “worried about possible negative feedback from certain quarters,” noted Suthichai Yoon, head of the Nation Group of publications, a Thai publishing group, explaining why Thailand had not issued a tsunami warning.

By comparison, the region's democratic countries, though still devastated by this force of nature, at least were responsible in their responses. In India, the disaster produced a ferment of anger in the press, and the population at large, over whether unregulated coastal construction and the destruction of wetland environment exacerbated the deadly impact of the waves. In ruined Sri Lanka, the government handed over some authority for relief work to the Tamil Tigers, the major rebel insurgent group; under the circumstances, this was best for the Sri Lankan people, as the Tigers controlled many areas and could best get supplies to populations.

Such a consideration of the people's best interest would have been anathema in a nation like China -- or even, perhaps, in Thailand. But those long-term downsides don't seem to bother the White House.

Joshua Kurlantzick is The New Republic's foreign editor.

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