Asian Tsunami Calamity Throws Scandinavian Governments into Crisis

An overwhelming number of the tourists missing in Thailand and Southeast Asia are from Scandinavian countries, where they left behind a dark winter for tropical climes. With thousands now missing and slow responses on the part of authorities, Sweden, Finland, Norway and Denmark are falling into deep political crises.

Injured Swedish tourists receive medical treatment as they wait at the evacuation center at Phuket Airport. Critics say the Swedish government took too long to react.

Injured Swedish tourists receive medical treatment as they wait at the evacuation center at Phuket Airport. Critics say the Swedish government took too long to react.

Swedes are fuming. Partly, they are unleashing their rage, horror and sense of utter helplessness in the face of a disaster felt by almost every family, directly or indirectly, in this tightly knit nation of 9 million. But they are also launching some very sharp criticism at a government that failed to absorb the magnitude of the Asian tsunami and took too long to respond. As many as 4,000 Swedes were swept into the tsunami's watery folds.

An editorial in the mass-circulation Aftonbladet lambasted Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds for not showing up to work until more than a day after she learned about the disaster. Even worse, said the paper, Freivalds did not sit worriedly at home like so many Swedes on Sunday night. Instead, she went to the theater in Stockholm. She did so knowing full well that, at that point, 10,000 people were already believed dead on Southeast Asia's beaches, which draw Swedes in droves each winter. And she didn't exactly rush to get to the office. "At nine o'clock the next day their chairs at the foreign office were still empty," hissed the paper. "Not until 10.30 a.m., 31.5 hours after the death wave, did the foreign minister arrive at work."

Is this grounds for Freivalds and Prime Minister Goeran Persson to resign? The paper thinks so, as, it seems do many Swedes. Since Wednesday, the Swedish Ministry has been deluged with thousands of nasty e-mails accusing the government of indecision, failure to act and not doing enough to help stranded and wounded Swedes get home. "You and your government's incompetence shines like a beacon in the night," wrote one Swede. "Today, Dec. 28, the government's weakness and indecisiveness surpassed my wildest and most terrifying fantasies," wrote another. Commentators, too, are lashing out. "I am ashamed of being Swedish when I have a prime minister who says that he can't get more people answering telephones because it is Boxing Day (Dec.26) and people have the day off," wrote Claes Thilander in the newspaper Dagens Nyheter.

Injured people must get home

Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds went to the theater in Stockholm the night of the catastrophe as thousands of her citizens went missing.

Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds went to the theater in Stockholm the night of the catastrophe as thousands of her citizens went missing.

Freivalds arrived in Thailand on Thursday hoping to provide hope and assurance that the government cares about its wounded, missing and dead. And also on Thursday, Persson spoke of the "empty chairs in schools and at workplaces" and of "the uncertainty that will last for a long time."

Still, many injured Swedes viewed both gestures as empty. What they want is real help. "There are injured people lying here who have to be taken home," 34-year-old Fredrik Lund told the Swedish paper Expressen in Khao Lak. "Injured Norwegians and Finns are already being transported back to their countries, but our government doesn't give a damn about us and instead sends Laila Freivalds."

Christer Nordgren is also waiting to get home. On Wednesday night, a Thai doctor told him that all Swedes were to be taken to the airport and transported back to Sweden. "There was to be a military plane waiting for us," he told Dagens Nyheter. By Thursday afternoon, however, the plane still hadn't arrived.

Many have criticized the Swedish government's response as disorganized -- pointing out in contrast the quick work of Swedish travel companies to get their travellers safely home as quickly as possible.

In fact, one of Sweden's unlikely new stars is Lottie Knutsson, director of information for the travel company Fritidsresor. Since Sunday, Knutsson has been working tirelessly to arrange flights home for Swedes and to get the government to ship more medicine and send more airlifts to get the injured home. "Let Lottie Knutsson from Fritidsresor change places with Göran Persson," one reader wrote to the Foreign Ministry. On Thursday, the headline of the daily Svenska Dagbladet screamed "Bring them home now," referring to Swedes still stranded in Thailand.

Although the outcry is greatest in Sweden, the country's leaders were not the only ones to misjudge the scale of the calamity. "There is good reason to ask whether it took too long for governments in Denmark, Sweden and Norway to understand the scope of the catastrophe and of the acute need to help their citizens," the leading Norwegian daily Aftenposten wrote on Thursday.

In Denmark, one opposition party has already demanded a special session of parliament's foreign affairs committee. "My firm opinion is that the government should have dispatched a disaster management team," Danish Social Democratic opposition leader Mogens Lykketoft told the daily Politiken.

But the worst criticism there has come from former Finnish Finance Minister Sauli Niinisto, who survived the tsunami on Khao Lak, and has a firsthand survival tale and loads of criticism for his country. Niinisto saved himself and his two sons by clinging to a lamppost for two hours as floodwaters rose beneath him. He later injured his leg while saving a Swedish child from drowning. "I assumed that there would be an emergency meeting by the government within 4-5 hours of the disaster and more officials would be sent to Phuket," he told a Swedish TV talk show. "After 18 hours, when I got in touch with Bangkok and Phuket, I realized we had not been taken seriously ... I was left with the feeling that no one wanted us anywhere.


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