Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Wan-an air drill

Nothing serves to remind one that Taiwan faces the constant threat of a military attack than the Wan-an ("everything is safe") exercise, which once a year between 2:00PM and 2:30PM, brings the country to a standstill.

Such an exercise was held on Tuesday, whereupon, to the faint wail of air raid sirens, Taipei came to a quasi full stop. As a rule, people are told to stay put and vehicles must stop circulating, with police officers on almost every street corner ensuring the cooperation of the public. As per regulations, says the Taipei City Government Web site, people are instructed to seek shelter and all business activity must cease. People inside buildings — office, houses, schools — are to stay indoors, turn the lights off and shut the windows. The MRT stops operating above ground, but underground service continues uninterrupted. Individuals caught conducting business during the exercise can be fined NT$30,000 to NT$150,000 (C$1,000 to C$5,000).

Nevertheless — and perhaps as a sign that, despite signs to the contrary emanating out of China, the threat perception of Taiwanese seems to have diminished with time — some people did not respect the regulations and continued driving, and windowwashers were even seen going about their job on a building in downtown Taipei.

Still, as the drill proceeds, the usually bustling city turns eerily silent.

Events like these, regardless of the fact that they are but a simulation, confirm the reality to a country's citizens that the specter of armed conflict looms large. People who come from North America or who, like me, were born in Canada, probably will never have experienced a drill like the Wan-an, unless they grew up under the threat of nuclear annihilation during the Cold War. Despite the constant bombardment in the media of news — some hysterical, some more level-headed — about the Chinese military buildup (with a 17.8 percent increase in its budget this year) and the nearly 1,000 missiles Beijing is pointing at Taiwan, one tends to fall in the routine of daily life and forgets about the ever-present danger.

If it only serves one purpose, the drill is a stark reminder that things could go wrong, that the normal course of life could undergo a radical transformation in a matter of minutes, the time it would take for the People's Liberation Army's missiles to cross the Taiwan Strait. It makes one appreciate the value of peace even more and perhaps one a little more willing to seek ways to prevent such a scenario from becoming an horrific reality.

No comments: