Malaysia reeling after second air disaster in five months
The crash of MH17 has prompted a wave of sombre soul-searching in the southeast Asian nation
An electronic display on a building reads “Condolences to the families of MH17”, in Kuala Lumpur. The Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 with 298 passengers and crew on board crashed in eastern Ukraine on July 17th. Photograph: Azhar Rahim/EPA
As well as killing 43 Malaysian nationals, the destruction of Malaysian Airlines MH17 at the weekend was the second major air disaster Malaysia has had to cope with in five months. It has prompted a wave of sombre soul-searching in the southeast Asian nation.
There are sympathy messages on repeat on all radio broadcasts, flags are at half-mast and TV news is filled with reports, broken up by ads for ways to help the conflict in Gaza.
The country is still grappling with the trauma of the March 8th disappearance of MH370 with 239 passengers and crew aboard, including 38 Malaysians. No trace of the MH370 flight has been found, a mystery that has severely damaged Malaysia’s image abroad and left furious relatives of passengers anguished and demanding answers.
The two crashes are causing widespread reflection in this largely Muslim country of 28 million, and the two incidents will leave scars.
“There is a sense of disbelief, a sense of ‘what the hell is going on?’,” says local musician and filmmaker Pete Teo. “This will be read as two disasters months apart but for different reasons they are very different events.”
Some Malaysian flight attendants are now terrified of flying, as they try to come to terms with both the mysterious disappearance of MH370 and now the loss of MH17 as well.
Ismail Nasaruddin, president of the National Union of Flight Attendants Malaysia, told a news conference how 11 of the 15 crew members aboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 were members of the union.
“We’ve received reports of crew members being unable to fly for reasons of being affected,” Nasaruddin told a press conference here. “Why was MH17 targeted out of the hundreds of flights which had taken the same flight path? Was it done with the intention of killing all those innocent lives aboard the flight? Is the logo of Malaysia Airlines similar to that of a Russian or Ukrainian aircraft?”
Teo says that MH370 was more of a controversy because of the way the communication was mishandled, and because of national defence issues. The background was, he adds, that the government has shifting right and there has been a lot of religious intolerance and this is going to be part of that. “It’s difficult to have empathy for how the situation was handled. This crash is less of a political issue, with less pressure on the government and the politicians. It comes at a very difficult time when the Najib regime is on the defensive.”
He believes there are a lot of tensions with race relations – the worst he can remember – plus many issues with religious intolerance. In June, a court in Malaysia banned Christians from using the word “Allah” in bibles. The Catholic Church argued how Allah had been used for hundreds of years in in Malay-language bibles to refer to God outside of Islam.
Then there is the damage to Malaysia’s image, which was very much tied up with Malaysia Airlines for many people here. “Malaysia Airlines, for my generation growing up in the 1970s, was a symbol of pride,” Teo says. “It has been mismanaged because of politics and now it is a shadow of itself. It is really tragic to see the airline hung this low.”
Around the city there were various events to mark the tragedy. The Democratic Action Party held a candlelight vigil outside the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall , carrying placards which ran “Justice for MH17”, “Who is murderer?” and “Our deepest condolences” and calling for justice for those who died in the crash.
“We want those responsible to be brought to book. They must be identified, there must be an international investigation,” says Gobind Singh Deo. “At the end of the day, we want to ensure not only those who are responsible are punished, but this incident will never happen again.”
The DAP’s acting chairman Tan Kok Wai says it was a “heinous crime against humanity” carried out by “coldblooded lunatics”.
Malaysia Airlines says it is retiring the flight number MH17 to identify its Amsterdam-Kuala Lumpur flights, “out of respect for our crew and passengers” who were aboard the aircraft, the airline said in a statement. It said the new flight number would be MH19.
There is fury at reports that independent investigators have been denied full access to the site and especially of reports that some of the armed separatists blocking the investigation were “intoxicated”, a charge which angers many in this predominantly Muslim country.
There is a lot of local support for UN Security Council plan to draft a resolution to condemn the shooting down of the aircraft, demand that armed groups allow access to the crash site and call on states in the region to co-operate with an international investigation.
Wong Sai Wan, editor-in-chief of Malay Mail, said in an editorial that MH17 was Malaysia’s equivalent of the September 11th, 2001, attacks on US targets.
“I am angry and I am sure that I am not alone. I want justice and, again, I am sure I am not alone,” he wrote. “We must act swiftly to bring to justice, especially for the sake of the 298 people killed and for our nation, while we grieve for MH370. Many of us are still reeling from that tragedy and the nation as a whole is struggling to come to terms with it. Five months later we are no closer to the truth than that fateful Saturday of March 8th.
“Yet, MH17 is different. We know who is responsible and all that remains is for the world to hunt these war criminals down. Many people, including myself, do not believe the Russians do not know who pulled the trigger or who ordered the act. If Russia wants to remain a global powerhouse, it must ensure the prosecution must take place and the murderers punished,” Wong wrote.