Three countries, three accidents, different reactions

As if these verbal insults were not enough, physical assault was added for good measure. Yusuf Yerkel, adviser to the prime minister was seen kicking a protestor as police officers detained him during a protest against Erdogan’s visit to Soma.  Erdogan himself was caught on camera telling a protester that anyone who insulted the prime minister of the republic deserved to be slapped.

 (Daily Times, 29 May 2014)

Within the space of a couple of months, we witnessed three accidents involving the deaths of hundreds of people in each case.  The tragedies spanned three countries separated by physical distance and cultural attitudes. Curiously, too, one happened in air, the other at sea and the third literally inside the earth, 400 meters underground.

I am referring to the mysterious disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines plane with 227 people on board, the sinking of the South Korean ferry Sewol which left more than 300 people dead or missing, and, finally, the mine disaster in Turkey which killed over three hundred miners.

In each of them, distraught relatives and friends protested for days, blaming the respective governments for delays, incompetence and neglect. It is worth noting in each case the public behavior of the highest authorities of the land, besides the handling of the tragedies by the respective governments.

First, the disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines Flight MH370. The Malaysian government has been criticized for its indecisiveness, lack of transparency and general incompetence.  One thing, however, stands out – the humility with which the transport minister and the prime minister appeared before the press. 

Although they did not say so, their expressions were highly apologetic. A sense of embarrassment and shame was discernible from their looks, if not words.

The second accident involved the sinking of a ferry on the southern shores of South Korea, in which almost all the victims were school students heading for a holiday.  The president, Park Guen-Hye, was constantly involved in the rescue and salvage operations.  

She appeared on television, making an unconditional apology with tears rolling down her cheeks.  “The final responsibility for not properly dealing with this incident is placed on me,” she said.  She has apologized at least three times.

Now, moving to the third in this unconnected series of accidents, to the Turkish mine disaster in Soma.  Here we had a completely different response from the highest officials of the state, including the prime minister.

To begin with, the ruling AKP party spokesman Hüseyin Çelik reminded the grieving relatives of the dead and trapped miners as well as the lucky survivors that mining is a risky job: “If you go out to sea, you might get caught in a storm.”  Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan went further, telling a news conference at the site of the disaster that accidents were the “will of god” and mining disasters happened everywhere. 

Searching for numerical equivalence, he went as far back as 19th century Britain, callously observing that accidents are “what happens in coal mining. Let me go back to the past in England, in a slide in 1862, 204 people died, in 1866, 361 people died, and in an explosion in England in 1894, 290 died.”

As if these verbal insults were not enough, physical assault was added for good measure. Yusuf Yerkel, adviser to the prime minister was seen kicking a protestor as police officers detained him during a protest against Erdogan’s visit to Soma.  Erdogan himself was caught on camera telling a protester that anyone who insulted the prime minister of the republic deserved to be slapped.

Stooping even lower, the government started dropping hints of a Jewish conspiracy.  An article on the front page of the pro-government newspaper Yeni Akit declared that the son-in-law of Alp Gurkan, the owner of the mine where the disaster occurred, is a Jew. The prime minister himself reportedly accused a protester of being an “Israeli spawn.”

All this from a government which has been repeatedly criticized for neglecting the safety of mines in pursuit of nepotism and profits.  An ILO report cited Turkey as having the highest number of fatalities from workplace accidents in Europe, 2-4 deaths per day in 2012!

The village at the center of all this consists of just 120 houses in a mountainous region. At least one male member of every local family works in the mines. Nearly every family here has lost one male member, many have lost more than one, even three or four.  What now binds these families together is shared bereavement, and yet, the prime minister failed to utter a single word of regret over the deaths.

Turkey belongs to that part of the world where accepting one’s mistake and apologizing is considered tantamount to dishonouring oneself and one’s family.  One is always expected to hold one’s head high, however low one may have to stoop to achieve this.  Here one kills others, even one’s closest kin, to save one’s honour, and such murder is honoured with the name “honour killing”.

Showing humility is considered self-humiliation.  Personal pride is protected by the denial of wrong-doing and by going on the offensive.  Every difference of opinion is a zero-sum game, where there are only winners and losers.  Compromise is a loss of face and there is nothing worse here than to lose face.  Witness Libya, Syria, Iraq and Egypt.

Three countries, three cultures, and three different reactions to accidents, to which the incompetence of the concerned governments is believed to have contributed. 

Malaysia is a southeast Asian country.  Southeast Asians, from Indonesia to Burma, are known for their personal humility and self-effacement. South Korea belongs to East Asia, where people kill themselves to preserve their honour, rather than live with shame. But in Turkey, as throughout the Middle East and Central Asia and, by extension, Pakistan and parts of western and northern India, people will kill others, even their own son or daughter, to preserve their own “honour”!

By Razi Azmi

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12 Responses to Three countries, three accidents, different reactions

  1. Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur says:

    Razi Sahib nice to see your writings again. Turkey represents a mindset which is prevalent in most Muslim countries. No wonder they are where they are.

  2. Sohail Mehmood says:

    honestly, the way Turkish culture or more specifically psycology is unveiled is quite astonishing for me. i thought it would have been dominated by the European culture which is more hamanitarian in nature.

  3. Javed Agha says:

    Good to see your article again. I hope the recess is over. Good analysis of the mindset of people in different regions in the world. Turkey has disappointed me.

  4. Tony says:

    Hi Razi

    a very interesting idea. Comparing the way three govts handled disasters is well worth pursuing. I can’t help thinking that there was something you left unsaid and Mr Ali Tapur seems to have touched upon it. That said, I think the Malaysians got a bad deal. They were criticised by the media for not being open when they were confronted by an unprecedented mystery. Sure they made mistakes but I thought that they handled themselves with dignity and sincerity. I think however that your attempt to compare the three nations through the filter of their respective approach to disaster is brilliant. You needed about 5000 more words to give the topic the depth it deserved.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      There you go again, Tony. The Malaysians praised in my article for their humility are Muslims as are the 200 million Indonesians, far more numerous than the Arabs and Central Asians combined. The mindset of the Turks (and Arabs), if I may put it that way, is regional, not religious. “Honour killings” are carried out not only in Muslim Pakistan, but also in Hindu India, rather regularly in Rajasthan and Haryana, but also in UP and Bihar. There have been reported instances of UK-based Sikhs killing their daughters for marrying the man they love or for running away from forced marriages. I agree with you that the subject merits a longer article.

  5. Kamran Shafi says:

    Good to see you in print again, Doc. Good piece: I fear the Turks are in for a rough ride: but what happens to their EU dreams?

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Sometime ago, the Turkish government decided that its EU dream was not likely to materialise. That was the moment it started looking east and south, not north and west. Since then it has embarked on the path of increased authoritarianism and disregard of local and international public opinion. We can see the result: Turkey now looks increasingly like an Arab country!

  6. pradeep kalra says:

    It is good to see you r back at what you do best.Had already read this in the Daily Times.It did surprise me to see the turks behaving in this manner.We are unfortunately living in times where there are a very few good people and a lot of selfish and heartless leaders.Your research is without question both remarkable and admirable.Keep it up Azmiji.

  7. Razi, Nice to see your thoughts again in print, and that you hadn’t gone the way of the Pangloss garden. I concur with others, that looking at these three areas through the lens of crises is helpful. More so is your response in the comment section reminding readers it’s a regional not religious profile. I’m writing from Banbury Street in Oxford, in the shadow of “Martyrs’ Statue,” a stone reminder that societies have all sorts of crises they’ve navigated, if not produced, and sometimes simply chose to remove them. Now that you’re back at your keyboard, perhaps you can look at how different minority religious views in modern countries have been viewed as crises, or seen as causes of them, and the response of those countries’ leaders.

  8. Jehanzeb Chohan says:

    A great comparison of cultural attitudes. I agree with you that Turkey’s political re-orientation is highly concerning. In Middle Eastern disputes it is increasingly ending up in positions to the right of the Wahabbi, but realistic, Saudi. Domestically, Turkey is being split into a west-focused Istanbul and a conservative Anatolia, the heartland of the current regime. I think the EU must share the blame for its footdragging on Turkey’s membership.

  9. PK says:

    Razi: How nice to know you are back at your desk writing once again!

    I am a little disappointed that you chose an isolated event(s) in the national histories of Turkey ie: the recent mining disaster, picking awful insensitive statement of a low level civil servant that hurt the feelings of grieving of families- and then compered against statements of Malaysian and South Korean governments.

    Are these statements good enough to compare national, cultural mindsets, histories and practices of nations? It is like picking a point on a curve and then extrapolating its meaning.

    If one were to examine past records in different periods of history of nations ranging from India , East Asia to China , any would be shocked to learn these nations were second to none in their brutality towards their own citizens.

    There is not enough space to document here, for the list can be pretty long!

    Few years ago, More than thousands of totally innocent Muslim citizens died horrific deaths under the watch of the current prime minister of India, similar massacre of innocent Sikhs occurred during the beginning of a former prime minister some twenty five years ago. In the neighbouring Burma, during military dictatorship literally thousands died by state initiated military actions . In Cambodia, genocidal rule of Pol Pot wiped out hundreds of thousands. During Sukarno’s rule in Indonesia, some hundred thousand Chinese citizens died. Dictatorial rule of Syngman Rhee was not so nice in South Korea either.

    Ah wait! How about the Chinese rulers during our ( mine at least!) life times! These rulers conducted a genocidal murders of Tibetans and occupation in the past many decades and of course let us not forget military orders to send tanks and machine gun fire to crush skulls of its own citizens in Tinanmen Square?

    Has any body apologized so far? So why pick on Turkey ?

    Evil and brutality can spring out from nowhere when the times are ripe!


    • Razi Azmi says:

      Dear PK, you have a valid argument and the examples you give show that you have your heart in the right place. But could you give me another example of a contemporary, elected head of state or government showing such insensitivity in public to the death of 300 people in an accident? And it is not the first time that the Turkish PM has behaved so arrogantly. He has constantly insulted protesters.

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