Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Taiwan President under Fire over Typhoon Response

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Taiwan President under Fire over Typhoon Response

Article excerpt

Fingerpointing has begun in earnest in Taiwan, as the island struggles to recover nearly a week and a half after its deadliest typhoon in at least 50 years.

Many here pin blame on the government, especially President Ma Ying-jeou. The disaster has become his Hurricane Katrina, with critics - including some from his own party - faulting him for poor leadership, bumbling crisis management, and a tin ear for public concerns.

"He's been hurt badly by this crisis," says George Tsai, a political scientist at Chinese Culture University and supporter of Ma's party. "He and his government turned it into a political crisis because people think he didn't show enough compassion."

Typhoon Morakot hit the island late on Aug. 7, dumping a record 9- 1/2 feet of rain over a three-day period, especially on mountainous areas in the south. As of Tuesday afternoon, the official death count stood at 127, but 307 more are missing and feared dead. Damages are estimated at $3 billion.

In the mountain village of Shiaolin, some 250 people are believed to have perished when the mountainside above them collapsed under torrential rain. Survivors in that area are blaming a water- diversion project for making their communities more vulnerable to flooding and mudslides.

Hundreds of people remain stranded without food or supplies in other areas of Taiwan, cut off by caved-in or buried roads.

President Ma has been faulted for a cautious, by-the-book response. He declined to declare a state of emergency, and said the cabinet should lead the crisis response, not him. Critics say he failed to fully mobilize the military, and passed the buck by faulting local governments and even villagers themselves.

Ma has insisted that heavy rains prevented more robust search- and-rescue missions; one military helicopter crashed on just such a mission, killing three rescuers.

Ma came under especially harsh criticism for attending a wedding on the Friday the storm hit, and a baseball game Aug. 15 to throw out the first pitch.

Meanwhile, Taiwan's foreign ministry sent a cable, since leaked to the local press, instructing its representatives abroad to decline all foreign aid except cash.

Damage control

Ma shifted into damage-control mode late last week after the scope of the disaster became clear. He has made several public apologies for the government's slow response, and on Sunday, in an interview with CNN, said he would take "full responsibility."

The government also did an about-face on aid, accepting a US offer of supplies and heavy-lift helicopters that can take earthmovers into remote areas. Australia has donated water- purification tablets and other supplies, and China has sent prefabricated homes.

The extent of the political fallout remains to be seen. The deputy foreign minister, who was in charge of the ministry when the typhoon hit, tendered his resignation Tuesday over the ministry's "confusing" instructions on accepting foreign aid. …

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