Tearful Ambassador alerted Sweden to tsunami

TT/The Local
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Tearful Ambassador alerted Sweden to tsunami

The Swedish government failed to realize that thousands of Swedish citizens were caught up in the 2004 Asian tsunami until it received a tearful phone call from its ambassador in Bangkok on 27th December, more than 24 hours after the giant wave hit.


The conclusion was put forward in a report released on Friday by the defence research institute FOI. The institute had been asked in 2005 by an investigatory commission to find out why Swedish officials took so long to realize the extent of the disaster.

Nearly 300,000 people were killed by the waves, of which 543 were Swedes. Despite this, it took more that 24 hours until the then-Prime Minister Göran Persson was made aware of the situation.

The turning point came at a meeting at the Foreign Ministry on Monday, 27th December, led by senior civil servant Hans Dahlgren. Sweden's Ambassador to Thailand, Jonas Hafström, took part in the meeting via telephone. Tearfully, he described the devastation in the resorts of Khao Lak and Phuket.

Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds spoke directly with Hafström. According to the researchers, it was probably at that point she was first informed that 15,000 Swedes were in the area. Following the meeting, Dahlgren told Prime Minister Persson that the Swedish death toll could equal that of the 1994 Estonia ferry disaster.

A number of factors are blamed in the report for the fact that ministers and officials in Stockholm did not realize earlier that many Swedes were in the disaster zone. Researchers Kerstin Castenfors and Ann Ödlund, said that the initial Swedish reaction was to treat it as a matter for foreign aid officials, with the main focus on Sri Lanka. This position then became locked, and the Swedish bureaucratic machine found it hard to shift focus.

A lack of clear information and an absence of clear routines, knowledge and experience of crisis management were also contributing factors. The failings in crisis management were most clear at the highest levels in the government, FOI said.


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