Taiwan president faces anger about storm response


POSTED: Monday, August 24, 2009

TAIPEI, Taiwan » Flags are flying at half-staff during three days of national mourning to honor those killed by Typhoon Morakot two weeks ago. But anger, not sadness, remains the prevailing sentiment across Taiwan as President Ma Ying-jeou grapples with his worst political crisis since taking office last year.

Despite repeated apologies for a slow response to the storm — which left at least 650 people dead or missing after record rain caused huge landslides — Ma has been kept busy parrying a skeptical news media and his political opponents, and calming furious survivors. “;The government is sorry,”; Ma said Saturday. “;It failed to fulfill its responsibility to protect you.”;

Political analysts and even Ma's allies in the governing Nationalist Party worry that Typhoon Morakot could become his “;Katrina moment,”; a blot on his legacy and perhaps an irreversible turning point just 15 months into his administration. But while the post-Morakot posturing makes for great political theater in Taiwan, the outside world is watching to see whether the episode will affect Ma's efforts to bring Taiwan closer to China.

Ma won office, in part, on a platform of improved ties to the mainland, but the pace of rapprochement has unnerved some voters who are mindful that reunification is the stated goal of the Communist Party in Beijing, even if it means sending the People's Liberation Army across the Taiwan Strait.

Since taking office, Ma has scored points by bolstering economic ties, starting direct mail service and liberalizing travel between Taiwan and the mainland. But those opposed to closer relations say Ma's inaction in the days after the storm, including an initial rejection of foreign aid, suggests that he is increasingly beholden to Beijing, a charge he vociferously denies.

Even Ma's decision to accept emergency supplies from the United States, Taiwan's staunchest ally, produced hand-wringing among those who questioned why military insignia on American helicopters were masked.

To make matters worse, during a news conference on Tuesday Ma suggested that the main task of Taiwan's army should be prevention and rescue. “;But now our enemy is not necessarily the people across the Taiwan Strait but nature,”; he said, adding that an order for 60 American-made Blackhawk helicopters would be cut by 15, and the savings used to buy disaster relief aircraft.

Adding fuel to speculation over his true intentions was the government's failure to apply last week for membership to the United Nations, a largely symbolic gesture that has occurred annually since 1993.

At the other end of the spectrum, advocates for closer ties between the two longtime enemies say that those aiming to thwart reunification are using the typhoon to their advantage.