The multinational military exercise known as Cobra Gold will take on a new mission next month when Asian and American officers meet in Thailand to try to figure out how their forces could have responded better to the Indian Ocean tsunami that took nearly 300,000 lives and left several million people homeless last December.
Moreover, the assembled officers will widen their focus from the tsunami that hit 11 nations in Southeast and South Asia and seek to apply the lessons learned to other natural and manmade disasters such as volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, chemical releases, and terrorist attacks that would call for international response.
And for the first time, Japan will take part along with Thailand, Singapore, and the United States, albeit with only 20 officers among the 6,365 military personnel in Cobra Gold. Even so, that presence is more evidence of the Japanese shedding the passive cocoon in which they wrapped themselves after their devastating defeat in the Second World War 60 years ago.
In addition, observers plan to come from China, Pakistan, Cambodia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
While the exercise will be spread over 12 bases, the central sessions of the 10-day exercise will be held in Chiang Mai in the mountains of northern Thailand.
Those in Chiang Mai will discuss inadequate responses early in the disaster, not the lag in rebuilding that made headlines recently. The New York Times this week quoted an Indonesian shopkeeper, Samsur Bahr: “The only thing we’ve gotten is small packets of food and supplies. Where the money is, we don’t know. It’s just meetings, meetings, meetings.”
Looking back at the swath of destruction caused by the tsunami, a Japanese word meaning “coast-hitting wave,” the first obstacle to relief was the lack of warning and the lagging awareness about the extent of the death and devastation. Early reports said only a few thousand had died.
The remote regions of initial impact compounded the sluggishness of the response. Once authorities realized the damage’s extent, they were hampered in assessing needs by a lack of communication and roads, particularly in western Indonesia. Many local officials had died or were out of action.
Thailand responded quickly, offering a large airbase in Utapao as a command center. Feuding between the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok and the military command at Utapao, however, did not help. Indonesia hindered relief efforts by insisting that U.S. warships operate outside its territorial waters, which made for longer flights for planes and helicopters carrying supplies.
Communications were less than satisfactory, on two counts. One was technical: incompatible radios or computers. The second was the U.S. military had few who knew the languages of affected nations. English spoken there was often poor.
As large quantities of relief supplies began arriving, bottlenecks developed in ports and airfields. Warehouses became overloaded, critical roads were not repaired soon enough, and the distribution of food, water, medicine, and temporary shelters was slowed.
Friction emerged among military people who thought disaster relief detracted from their missions and nongovernmental organizations who resented the presence of armed forces.
More friction arose between military and civilian rescue workers and a swarm of reporters and TV crews from around the world.
In Sri Lanka, some victims complained they were ignored by TV crews while others were coaxed into posing for pictures. Governments grumbled that rescue efforts were overlooked while victims were portrayed long after the disaster.
Perhaps most tragic, neither the governments of the affected region nor the U.S. and other military forces deployed there were prepared to prevent looting or the kidnapping of orphaned children for sale into the sex trade.
These are among issues to be addressed in Chiang Mai in the 24th annual Cobra Gold. The focus has shifted in recent years from routine military drills to coping with refugees, peacekeeping and humanitarian work and now disaster relief.
A nearly completed agenda shows the thorny issues of military-civil relations will receive much attention. Despite recent experience, soldiers and civilian relief workers often don’t speak the same language or understand how each other operates.
Along that line, the agenda suggests military planners have overlooked the need to gain and keep broad political support for international disaster responses. Public diplomacy and press relations aimed at explaining to the world what relief forces are doing have been given short shrift.
Richard Halloran is a free-lance writer and former New York Times correspondent based in Honolulu.