Freivalds regrets theatre visit

Foreign secretary, Laila Freivalds, told the tv programme Agenda on Tuesday evening that she regretted her now infamous trip to the theatre on the evening of 26th December. Freivalds has born the brunt of public fury at the government's response to the tsunami catastophe in south Asia since it was revealed that she took over thirty hours to return to her office after news of the disaster first broke.

In other developments, it has been announced that prime minister Göran Persson intends to visit Thailand on the 16th January, possibly stopping off in Sri Lanka en route. The king, Carl Gustaf is also planning to fly to Thailand to meet with King Bhumibol to pass on the thanks of a grateful Swedish nation to the people of Thailand who have helped stricken holiday-makers. It also looks likely that Persson will order an inquiry into the government’s response to the disaster.

Meanwhile, the Swedish press are trying to piece together the exact sequence of events in government departments after images of the tsunami’s effects first appeared on the world’s television screens early on the morning of the 26th December.

“We should have responded more urgently on the Sunday and not waited for all the information to come in.” That was Laila Freivalds’ conclusion in her interview on the Agenda programme. She also admitted that the government misjudged the number of Swedes affected by the tsunami and that the government apparatus was systematically flawed for dealing with such crisis situations.

However, she also maintained that the full extent of the disaster was by no means clear on the Sunday.

It seems likely that some of the media spotlight will be turned from Freivalds onto prime minister, Göran Persson. Expressen revealed that, although Persson had discussed the disaster with undersecretary of state, Lars Danielsson, on the Sunday, he had not spoken to his foreign secretary. Freivalds’ press officer, Anders Hagquist, told the paper that there had been no contact between the two for the whole day.

Expressen also reported that at 14:13 on the Sunday, the Foreign Office (UD) had received a fax from the Swedish ambassador in Bangkok describing a chaotic situation with many dead and injured. He also said the embassy had been inundated with calls from Swedes asking for help. According to the paper, this fax never reached Persson, although it did not say whether it reached Freivalds.

DN journalist Björn Gillberg wrote that his daughter had phoned him on her mobile from the Thai island of Khao Lak shortly after 6am on the Sunday and told him of a giant wave which had just swept over her hotel. She continued to give him regular reports through the morning, describing the destruction and numbers of dead Swedish holiday-makers in what was left of the hotel.

He phoned both the UD and the Swedish Rescue Services Agency (responsible for sending help to overseas disasters) to ask for advice regarding his daughter and a son in law who was in Sri Lanka. The UD told him they were trying to set up a help line and Gillberg’s call was the first the SRSA had heard of the disaster.

Gillberg was surprised to then see a UD statement at lunch time on Sunday saying that no Swedes had been injured in the disaster.

Like a number of commentators, as well as Freivalds herself, Gillberg saw the response to the tsunami as the latest in a series of bumbling, amateurish responses to acute crises, mentioning the murder of prime minister Olof Palme, the Chernobyl catastrophe and the ‘Estonia’ ferry disaster.

Former prime minister Carl Bildt, who led the handling of the ‘Estonia’ disaster, refused to criticise Göran Persson directly, but told Expressen what he thought should have happened:

“In these situations, the Cabinet Committee must take the lead. All the arms of the Cabinet Office converge there. It’s important at an early stage to get the resources of the Cabinet Office in motion. That can only happen with clear leadership from the top.”

Gillberg noted in his article that it looked like Freivalds and other parts of the government were waiting for orders to act and also that Persson himself expected to be told what to do. At a press conference, Persson was asked why the government had not sent planes to Thailand earlier. Because we hadn’t received a request, was his answer.

Persson has, however, accepted that criticism of the government’s handling of the disaster could be warranted. Opposition parties have called for an inquiry into Sweden’s response and put forward Bildt and fellow former prime minister, Ingvar Carlsson, as candidates to lead a commission. Persson has not rejected the idea and told a press conference:

“This is a unique event and to think that we’ve done everything right would be an implausible attitude.”

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Svenska Dagbladet, Expressen