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Freivalds: I had no idea what Phuket was

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Laila Freivalds has explained her failure to react quickly to the plight of Swedes in the tsunami-hit Thai resort of Phuket by saying that she “had no idea what Phuket was.”

The Swedish foreign minister has been heavily criticised for not reacting more quickly to the South Asian disaster, which has left hundreds of Swedes missing, most of them in Phuket and other resorts on Thailand’s west coast. Media and opposition politicians have directed particular criticism at Freivalds’ decision to go to the theatre on the day after the catastrophe.

Asked in an interview with Dagens Nyheter why her department had not understood the scale of the disaster earlier, Freivalds replied that, for her part, she “had no idea what Phuket was,” and that she had “absolutely no idea” that Sweden’s second most popular winter holiday resort was a popular destination for Swedes.

Dagens Nyheter pointed out that Jan Nordlander, the head of the foreign ministry’s consular service had previously served as Ambassador in Bangkok, and should therefore have known that Swedes could have been hit. Freivalds replied that Nordlander did not appreciate the scale of the catastrophe until he arrived on the scene. “It is not sufficient to know that there were many Swedes there; you also need to know what a tsunami is.”

Fredrik Reinfeldt, leader of the opposition Moderate Party said that the fact that the foreign minister was unfamiliar with Phuket “added to the impression that the Social Democrats are very distanced from the people.”

Following Freivalds’ comments, Aftonbladet was on hand to inform the foreign minister about Thailand – with the help of a few schoolkids.

Asked if he could point to Phuket on a map, ten-year old Carl Nilsson replied: “That’s really easy. Everyone knows that it’s in Thailand.”

Leaders from the travel industry were also surprised by Freivalds’ comments. Sam Weihagen, managing director of My Travel said that it was “very surprising that she has such poor knowledge. You almost can’t believe that she has been quoted correctly.”

Freivalds herself took this line following the publication of the interview. She told Sveriges Radio’s Ekot programme that what she had been trying to say was that she was unaware that Phuket was “a large geographical area with lots of hotels, many of which were built near the water.”

DN also revealed that on the day of the catastrophe the foreign ministry rejected an offer by the police to help handle Sweden’s response to the tsunami. The foreign ministry rejected this offer, saying that it alone had responsibility for handling disasters outside the Nordic region. The police, who had experience of handling earlier disasters such as the sinking of the ferry Estonia, had offered to draw up a register of missing Swedes, but the foreign ministry chose to handle the work internally, using mainly inexperienced staff drafted in at short notice.

Yet despite her efforts to quell the criticism, Freivalds faced further condemnation when it was revealed in Sunday’s Dagens Nyheter that she had not taken part in last week’s crisis exercise at the Foreign Ministry, which was intended to prepare the ministry for future disasters. In addition, neither press secretary Anders Hagquist nor cabinet secretary Hans Dahlgren had participated.

Freivalds defended the decision for her not to take part, saying that the political leaders of the department were left out of the exercise because they “don’t have operative responsibility.”

But maybe catastrophe exercises would be wasted on Freivalds. If Aftonbladet’s political columnist Lena Mellin were to have her way, the foreign minister would be kicked out of her job. She called for Freivalds to lose her job, adding “the whole thing is so embarrassing that you just want to pull the covers over your head and hope that nobody notices that Laila Freivalds exists”.

Sources: Dagens Nyheter, Aftonbladet, Göteborgs Posten