Public fury over government reaction

The government's handling of what has become a national catastrophe for Sweden, as well as for the countries directly hit by Sunday's tsunami, has been fiercely criticised in thousands of letters and emails to newspapers and the foreign office.

The accusations being laid at the government’s door include being slow to understand the scale of the crisis, a lack of preparation for such an event and a failure to coordinate relief to stranded and wounded Swedes as the effects became clear.

Prime minister Göran Persson’s leadership has been strongly criticised and foreign minister Laila Freivalds is facing calls for her resignation following the news that she did not get to the office until 31 hours after media first raised the alarm.

“I am ashamed of being Swedish when I have a prime minister who says that they can’t get more people answering telephones because it is Boxing Day and people have the day off,” wrote Claes Thilander in Dagens Nyheter.

Svenska Dagbladet quoted a letter to Göran Persson, in which the correspondent wrote, “You and your government’s incompetence shines like a beacon in the night.”

“Today, December 28th, the government’s weakness and indecisiveness surpassed my wildest and most terrifying fantasies,” wrote another.

Many people have compared the government’s failure to provide information and its apparent lack of urgency with the professionalism of the travel companies operating in the area. Fritidsresor is one of the largest and their director of information, Lottie Knutsson, has been tirelessly demanding more airlifts and medical support from the government.

“Let Lottie Knutsson from Fritidsresor change places with Göran Persson,” a reader wrote to SvD.

Expressen reported an exchange between Knutsson and Laila Freivalds just before they appeared on a news programme on Swedish Television on Tuesday. An “angry and hissing” Freivalds is alleged to have said to Knutsson, “You should watch yourself – you should really watch out.”

Lottie Knutsson declined to comment on the incident and Freivalds later denied that she had threatened anyone.

But Thursday’s Aftonbladet piled more pressure on the foreign minister when it revealed that on Sunday evening – by which time it was clear that over 10,000 people had been killed by the waves in the region – she went to the theatre in Stockholm.

“Afterwards Laila Freivalds and [press secretary] Anders Hagquist spoke two or three times before the they stopped for the night,” said the tabloid.

“At nine o’clock the next day their chairs at the foreign office were still empty. Not until 10.30am, 31.5 hours after the death wave, did the foreign minister arrive at work.”

Since Wednesday the foreign minister has been sent “thousands of emails from furious members of the public” according to Expressen. Many have demanded her resignation.

On Thursday Laila Freivalds was visiting Thailand, where there is considerable anger towards the foreign office among the thousands of Swedes waiting for flights home.

“There are injured people lying here who have to be taken home,” said 34 year old Fredrik Lund to Expressen.

“Injured Norwegians and Finns are already being transported back to their countries,” he continued. “But our government doesn’t give a damn about us and instead sends Laila Freivalds.”

Christer Nordgren was one of the wounded Swedes waiting to be brought home. He told DN that at 5pm on Wednesday 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 said. By Thursday afternoon the plane still had not arrived.

“They say that Sweden has been very supportive. But I haven’t seen many Swedes, just volunteers who have been here on holiday and are staying on to help. The Swedish government ought to have sent help sooner.”

Christer Nordgren’s wife, Eva, agreed:

“I have seen the Danish, Norwegian and German ambassadors, but not the Swedish. No Swedish doctors, no nurses. It’s rubbish, the way Sweden has dealt with this.”

Laila Freivalds told one of Dagens Nyheter’s reporters in Phuket that “from the first moment we began gathering together as many people as we could, first from the area and then we have been sending people from Stockholm”. She said that the first people from Stockholm set off around 24 hours after the news first broke.

The reporter, Ole Rothenborg, asked the foreign minister why they did not arrive on Monday.

“We got information first throughout Sunday and Monday was the first day people could travel,” said Freivalds.

“But Dagens Nyheter travelled down on Sunday,” said Rothenborg.

“I can’t comment on that,” Freivalds replied.

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Expressen, Aftonbladet