Ambassador: I kept Stockholm informed on tsunami

It was clear at an early stage that the tsunami in South East Asia had affected a large number of Swedes, Sweden’s ambassador to Thailand has told a parliamentary inquiry into the government’s much-criticised reaction to the disaster.

Jonas Hafström told the Riksdag’s Committee on the Constitution that he had made up to thirty calls to staff at the Foreign Ministry in Stockholm on the day of the disaster, and embassy staff believed at the time that Stockholm understood the seriousness of the situation.

Hafström travelled from Bangkok to the disaster area around Phuket early on 26th December 2004, the day of the catastrophe, to set up a crisis centre. Before he set off, he had been in contact with the Foreign Ministry’s consular section.

“The most important signal I sent to the Foreign Ministry was that we sounded the alarm and told them that we were on the move.”

It was already quite clear at that time that something very serious had happened and that Swedes were affected. The Foreign Ministry was aware that Thailand was a large Swedish tourist destination. Hafström told the committee that even if nobody realised at the outset how big the catastrophe was, it could be assumed that many Swedes were affected.

The ambassador said that he had spoken between 20 and 30 times to various senior officials at the Foreign Ministry. The embassy had also faxed an initial report to the ministry on the morning of the disaster.

“I got the impression that they understood what had happened. I had no reason to believe anything else.”

Hafström was sent to Thailand as ambassador four months before the tsunami. Before that he was head of the consular section, which is in charge of helping Swedes caught in emergencies abroad. In that role, Hafström had led aid efforts in a number of crises, including following the Bali bombings, the September 11th attacks in the United States, and the SAS crash in Milan.

Hafström told the committee that given that he had informed the consular section about the disaster, he had no reason to believe that the system would not work.

“If you have that guarantee, it has always worked in all disasters that I have worked with.”

On 26th December Karlo Laakso, second in command at the embassy, also had a conversation with the foreign ministry about the need for resources for the rescue effort. Among other things he told the ministry that there might be a need for expert help for looking after children who had lost their parents. But Hafström said he did not want to make a judgment about why help took so long to come, and said that this was something that December’s Catastrophe Commission report had dealt with.

Asked whether it had been appropriate that Laila Freivalds, Sweden’s foreign minister, had visited the disaster area a couple of days after the tsunami, Hafström said he thought the visit was “very good.” He reminded the committee that there had been rumours of mass graves and of corpses being cremated before they had been identified. Freivalds was able to get quick assurances that no bodies would be burned.

The ambassador was also asked whether the Foreign Ministry had ever undertaken simulations of crisis situations while he was at the consular section.

“Not during my time there,” he replied.

TT/The Local