The Aftermath of Typhoon Morakot

by on 週三, 02 九月 2009 評論
On August 7-10, Typhoon Morakot’s torrential rains devastated southern Taiwan. At least 600 people died under the giant mudslides triggered by the typhoon. More than three weeks after the disaster, the psychological and political aftershocks are still felt throughout the island. The raging debate has become increasingly multilayered:

- The first debate has been about the dismal performance of the forecasting system, unable to predict the deluge that has engulfed the southern part of the island.

- The second one, and the most damaging politically, has focused on the slow response of the central government. President Ma Ying-jeou, it has been argued, has shown that he was not a strong and capable leader. From the start, he had appointed a cabinet of technocrats insensitive to real life issues and popular feelings. And he has focused so much on bettering relationships with China that he has forgotten to tackle Taiwan’s everyday concerns. Whatever the fairness of these allegations, they have suddenly altered drastically his public image, with consequences so far-reaching that they are still difficult to predict.

- Though they have not taken the brunt of political criticisms, local governments have not fared much better than the Center. They sometimes have been slow to request external help. Roads and other public facilities might have been so inadequate because public works contracts are given out by local powers in dubious fashion; however, the “Green” counties of the South have been keen to shift the blame towards the central government.

- Quite logically, the attention now focuses on the poor quality of public works, deforestation and general neglect of environmental imperatives, which might explain the amplitude of the mudslides. Political leaders are not the only ones to blame. The strife towards rapid profit and Taiwan society’s indifference to long-term issues account for the rapid ecological deterioration, especially in mountain areas, which might trigger similar disasters in the future.

- The prayer tour conducted by the Dalai Lama has opened up a new front: political motivations have been invoked, as the invitation made by Green local leaders is deeply embarrassing for Ma Ying-jeou, who could not reject the Dalai Lama’s application without further political consequences but has now to deal with China’s anger. Meanwhile, not all Taiwanese religious leaders have reacted enthusiastically to the coming of the Dalai Lama: many victims from the mountainous area were aborigine, thus probably Christians. Taiwanese Buddhist leaders fear the growing influence of Tibetan Buddhism on their own flock; and Chinese religion associations have pointedly underlined the “efficacy” of traditional memorial services and rituals…

- Once avidly watched, medias have also suffered from a backlash: their unbridled sensationalism, the relentless flow of often meaningless reports and interviews and the competition among TV channels have illustrated once again the very poor quality of information service in Taiwan. Medias now appear as the main profiteers of a national disaster.

- One positive effect of the disaster has rarely been noticed: Civil society has very quickly taken up relief work (from the outset of the disaster in fact), without public support, and newly relying on Internet Social Networks, especially through Plurk, preferred by many young Taiwanese activists to Twitter. Once again, Taiwan has shown that its main strength lies in its robust civil society that works independently from the public and media apparatus. A positive inheritance from the way Taiwan’s democratization came about.

The typhoon has thus proven to be a social and cultural revelation. Taiwanese have experienced once again the ills that come with short-term vision and concerns, and have strongly expressed their political disillusions. At the same time, their natural gift for self-introspection and for self-organization has been as remarkable as has been the case in previous circumstances, such as after the massive earthquake that happened ten years ago. The problem is now to draw the right lessons from the disaster, and to resolutely orient Taiwan towards sustainability and proper use of land resources. A global challenge that new social networks might help to spell out for the greater good of a traumatized society looking for meaning, purpose and unity…

Benoit Vermander (魏明德)

Benoit Vermander lives in Shanghai. He teaches philosophy and religious anthropology at the University of Fudan.

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