Roaring water in the Dachia River the day after the typhoon left.
In addition to leaving death and destruction in its wake, the typhoon appears to have left a trail of ugly politics as well.
To date, the big loser appears to be President Ma. The President, whose origins in the KMT security state and whose apparent indecision, short temper, self-centeredness, and indifference to the fate of his own people is never seen in foreign press depictions, took a beating this time so bad that even the South China Morning Post, usually a KMT cheerleader, was moved to write about it today:
The worst flooding to hit Taiwan in half a century has put the government of Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou to the test - and so far it is struggling badly.In the exchange between Ma and the local villager Ma was nastier than the SCMP indicates here. The man in question had implored Ma, saying that they had all voted for him (Aargh! What did they expect would happen when he was elected?) and that it was difficult to see him. Ma answered both sarcastically and testily: "You're seeing me now, aren't you?" This incident sparked angry letters and editorials in the local Chinese and English media, as well as an excellent post yesterday from J Michael Cole, who observed, along with many others, that Ma had simply echoed the unseemly, arrogant behavior of KMT bigwig Lien Chan after the 9/21 earthquake, as if the KMT had learned nothing.
Television footage of complaints from bereaved families and an embarrassed Mr Ma trying to comfort the son of a flood victim were broadcast almost continuously yesterday, reflecting public disappointment over the performance of the Ma administration.
A man, who won a promise from Mr Ma to help him locate his missing father, yesterday had to hire a bulldozer with his own money to try to see if his father had been buried by a mudslide in the eastern county of Taitung.
"We found my father's car buried by thick mud and rocks and we asked the neighbourhood chief to help dig, but he simply told us it was out of his power to command the public works department to do the job. What kind of help was that?" Lee Yu-ying said.
Mr Lee and his mother broke through a police cordon to demand Mr Ma's help during his inspection tour of the hard-hit county on Monday.
A number of areas, including a hot spring resort, were damaged by flash floods and mudslides. Television footage showed an embarrassed Mr Ma telling Mr Lee: "Now you can see me", after Mr Lee said it taken a huge effort to get close to him.
The daughter of a flood victim in the southern county of Kaohsiung said: "My father is still trapped there. They told us they would send a helicopter to save him, but there is nothing. My father is still waiting."
An apparent lack of concern from Mr Ma sparked online anger.
Netizen Huang Shu-tsun asked if Mr Ma realised that the government was responsible for the grief families were experiencing.
The media also reported that Mr Ma went to a wedding when the typhoon was tipped to hit Taiwan. The media also said a local leader of Mr Ma's Kuomintang hosted a banquet in Kaohsiung on Monday evening to drum up support for the KMT election of central committee members on August 22 as Hsiaolin village was reported to have been buried by landslides.
Ma also had a bout of foot-in-mouth disease visiting Taimali on the east coast the day before, where he a told man whose father was missing that Ma empathized, because he'd lost his dad too -- as if Ma's father dying at a comfortable old age was the same as waking up one morning and finding out that Dad has disappeared in a flash flood. I do give Ma credit for a clumsy attempt to empathize with hoi polloi.
Water pours through the sluice gates of the Shihgang Dam in Taichung county.
The Taipei Times editorially observed:
Ma’s visit to areas ravaged by the storm was intended to instill confidence that the government is aware of the extent of the devastation and will not abandon communities to their fate. But Ma was visibly irritated and impatient with villagers who spoke to him. Grief-stricken residents were likely left feeling the president was as distant as ever, even when at arm’s length. Rather than consolation, Ma communicated aloofness.What Ma really communicated, in refusing to declare a state of emergency, and in putting the blame and the onus on local governments, was he does not consider the people of Taiwan his own people. Local commentators were quick to point out that after the great quake in Szechuan, Ma had organized 50 phone hotlines for donations (and a good thing too). For Taiwan's disaster? "Apply to your local government."This is the same mind that considers an extended political campaign in the south a "long stay" and quotes Tang poetry when visiting farmers there. Aloof is a word that fails to properly represent the gulf between the island's President, born in Shenzhen, and its people, especially those in the south.
Nor were his comments on the roles of central and local governments appropriate or helpful. Ma said on Monday that local governments bore full responsibility for the relief effort, while the central government would help only if local authorities could not handle the situation. In this way, the government would ensure that it used funds “reasonably and efficiently,” he said.
While excessive government spending has been a hot topic in past weeks, a disaster in which hundreds of people are feared missing is hardly the occasion to talk about governmental division of labor.
If Ma learned any lessons from the extensive flooding in the south last year, he did not learn them well. The president came under fire last summer for not visiting areas devastated by torrential rains in June. At the time, the Presidential Office brushed off the criticism, saying Ma would not visit “out of respect for the Constitution” because “disaster relief and visits fall under the authority of the Executive Yuan.”
This time there was no mention of “honoring” the Constitution. Ma was quick to head to the front lines of the disaster, but did such a poor job of displaying sympathy that he made Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (???) look like a man of the people for his cameo performance after the Sichuan quake.
In addition to Ma's attitude, he also sparked criticism by bringing with him local political candidates when he toured the affected areas, a markedly cynical move. The KMT, to its credit, instituted an immediate ban on political rallies, and expelled a politician from Jiaxian, a hard hit area, for holding a campaign activity in Kaohsiung.
Landslides and washouts knock out a road north of Shihgang.
The blame game actually started right away as the Taipei Times reported two days ago. The Ma Administration immediately said that Pingtung County had been notified but potentially affected areas were not evacuated, and further criticized the Weather Bureau for its inaccurate forecasts -- thus sending the message that everyone was to blame but Ma's central government.
The cruel politics of putting the blame on local governments should not be overlooked. As I noted a while back, the county governments in the south are broke, in particular Chiayi, Tainan, and Pingtung. They cannot afford typhoon relief, and might very well fail. If so, Ma will blame them -- if they succeed, you know that the Administration will claim it was because of the strong central government support. Note that the Ma Administration has also turned down aid from Japan and the US.
The reason for the cynical politics is probably that the KMT took a hit for the arrogance and indifference of its leaders, and the perceived incompetence of its response, after the 1999 quake, that cost it in the 2000 elections six months later. It seems that rather than get all proactive and get out there and make things go, Ma is attempting to insulate the Administration from the (probably inevitable) fallout from when the relief efforts are perceived to be inadequate, while hurting the (DPP-run) county governments. The public is quite likely to see through this; it tends to hold its central government leaders responsible for big messes like this one.
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