A farce: mistrust & rivalry hampers search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 despite 75 years of Asean

A farce: mistrust & rivalry hampers search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 despite 75 years of Asean
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It’s the stuff best selling mystery novels and high grossing movies are made of. A modern commercial airliner filled with 239 passengers and crew sits waiting to embark on a five-and-a-half hour international flight. Flight attendants make last minute checks, the cabin lights are dimmed and the aircraft, a Boeing 777-200 – one of the world’s safest aircraft – rolls effortlessly down the runway, gently lifts off and commences climbing towards its cruising altitude of 35,000 ft (10,668 meters). Forty minutes later and with no prior warning it vanishes from air traffic control radar screens. Such is the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370.

Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER (9M-MRO) which operated MH370 on March taking off at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport (LFPG) in France. 26 December 2011
Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777-200ER (9M-MRO) which operated MH370 on March taking off at Roissy-Charles de Gaulle Airport (LFPG) in France. 26 December 2011 Laurent Errera

For some unexplained reason search and rescue activities are delayed. Likewise public announcements of a missing aircraft are also delayed, with the first the world learns of a missing jetliner coming some five hours later – at about the time Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 is due to descend into the smoggy and polluted air of China’s capital, Beijing.

Despite having had some four hours to prepare the airline makes no advance preparation. The arrivals board at Beijing Capital International Airport simply displaying a ubiquitous “delayed” sign, in place of the expected arrival time.

As news of the missing aircraft spreads the Chinese media race to the airport. Likewise distraught relatives of those onboard also head towards the airport seeking answers, information, news – anything to alleviate their fears.

Rather than finding a controlled environment with airport and airline officials waiting to usher them to an area out of the media spotlight, as standard crisis management protocols dictate, they instead are besieged in a rugby style scrum of mammoth proportions, surrounded on all sides.

With dozens of cameras and microphones pressed into their faces and a cacophony of questions for which they have no answers shouted at them, they attempt to force their way through the unyielding pack to find someone in authority, but to no avail.

Rather than being a one-off faux pas, the abject failure with which Malaysia Airlines (MAS) failed to prepare ahead for the families and friends of those onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and control the frantic media scrum at Beijing Capital International Airport has proven to be a harbinger of the embarrassing systematic failure with which the Malaysia Government has managed the situation.

Tantalizing “facts” & systemic failures

Malaysian police released these photographs of two men who they allege are Iranian nationals who boarded MH370 using false passports
Malaysian police released these photographs of two men who they allege are Iranian nationals who boarded Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 using false passports Royal Malaysia Police

In the 24-hours preceding the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 a constant stream of tantalizing “facts” released by Malaysian officials not only fuelled speculation about the country’s border security, but also raised alarm bells that Malaysia Airline flight MH370 had been subject to a terrorist attack on a scale to rival the 1988 downing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland. That attack killed all 254 passengers and crew onboard, in addition to 11 people on the ground.

Amongst the “facts”, several of which were later recanted, were that up to five passengers on the missing aircraft were traveling on stolen passports; that five passengers failed to board the flight after having checked in; and that the mobile phones of passengers onboard the missing aircraft were still ringing.

Although the number of passengers traveling on stolen passports was later reduced to two, one the property of the Italian government and the other the property of the Austrian government, that these people were passed through Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) drew an angry reaction from Malaysia Home Minister, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who lambasted immigration officers saying: “I am still puzzled how come (immigration officers) cannot think, an Italian and Austrian (passengers), but with Asian facial features”.

By Monday the description of the two passengers had changed again. When asked to describe them Malaysia’s Director-General of the Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), Azharuddin Abdul Rahman, likened them both to A.C. Milan footballer Mario Balotelli, who was born in Italy to Ghanaian parents.

Although unclear whether the comparison was meant to imply the two travelers were black skinned or sported a Mohican haircut and large diamond earrings in the manner of the Italian striker, it later transpired that two stolen passports were used by Iranian nationals, both of who are presumed to have been going to use them in an attempt to gain asylum in Europe.

Likewise a claim by Mr Rahman that five passengers failed to board the plane after checking in – forcing the airline to offload their bags – was denied by police chief Khalid Abu Bakar as ever having occurred, after he initially said there was no need to interview the passengers as they had done nothing wrong.

Interpol adds to the farce

Ronald K. Noble, Secretary-General of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol)
Ronald K Noble, Secretary-General of the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol) (File) Policía Nacional de los colombianos

Joining in criticizing Malaysia’s border control was the International Criminal Police Organization, Interpol, whose Secretary General Ronald K Noble issued a tersely worded statement confirming that the two stolen passports used by passengers onboard Malaysia Airline flight MH370 were amongst the 40 million travel documents contained in its Stolen and Lost Travel Documents (SLTD) database.

According to Mr Noble, “for years Interpol has asked why should countries wait for a tragedy to put prudent security measures in place at borders and boarding gates. Now, we have a real case where the world is speculating whether the stolen passport holders were terrorists.

“If Malaysia Airlines and all airlines worldwide were able to check the passport details of prospective passengers against Interpol’s database, then we would not have to speculate whether stolen passports were used by terrorists to board MH 370.

“For the sake of innocent passengers who go through invasive security measures prior to boarding flights in order to get to their destination safely, I sincerely hope that governments and airlines worldwide will learn from the tragedy of missing Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 and begin to screen all passengers’ passports prior to allowing them to board flights”, Mr Noble went on to add.

However, while Interpol has plans to expand access to its SLTD database to the transport and tourism industry through its I-Checkit system, it appears this is not yet a reality.

Numerous emails and tweets sent to Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France went unanswered, apart from one brief reply, which said in part: “Interpol has developed I-Checkit – an initiative which is currently in the pilot phase – which will allow private sector partners in the travel, hotel and banking industries to screen documents against the SLTD database when customers book a plane ticket, check into a hotel or open a bank account”.

Questions asking how many airlines currently have access to the system, its cost to access, and whether it was in fact currently active went unanswered, making the Interpol chiefs announcement take on the form of nothing more than a cheap publicity stunt aimed at promoting a facility that is currently unable to do what the crime-busting organization claims.

Malaysian authorities keep friends & neighbors in the dark

The potential area Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 could have gone missing in
The potential area Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 could have gone missing in CNN

Once news of the missing aircraft were announced, Malaysia’s regional neighbours wasted no time in spinging into action.

Vietnam dispatched 22 ships and 14 aircraft, while Singapore dispatched two warships, a submarine support and rescue vessel, a Sikorsky naval helicopter, and a C-130 Hercules aircraft.

Additionally the United States deployed two navy ships and a P-3C Orion aircraft, while China, whose citizens represent the majority of nationals onboard Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, dispatched nine warships from as far away as Southern China at flank speed.

Also contributing to the search operation are the governments of Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the Philippines. Malaysia deployed some 18 aircraft and 27 ships.

In short, Malaysia’s neighbors and friends in the region pulled out all stops to assist once the delayed news of the event was made public, with a virtual naval and air armada rapidly being established in the search area, about 160 km (90 NM) northeast of Kota Bharu, over the Gulf of Thailand, and off Malaysia’s east coast.

When the Malaysia government announced just one day into the search that that it was expanding the search area to also include the Strait of Malacca off western Malaysia, alarm bells started to ring on social media networks and forums.

Experienced pilots and S&R coordinators began questioning the motive given that the last radar confirmation of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was off the country’s east coast – about one hour’s flying time and some 500 km away.

Like a slow dripping tap information gradually made it into the media, with headlines around the world beginning with Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 may have turned back, say authorities, progressing to Military ‘tracked MH370 off course’, culminating with, Malaysian military now reveals it tracked MH370 to Malacca straits, after initially being deflected by Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370: Air Force Chief Denies Plane Tracked to Malacca.

Perhaps the entire situation was best summed up by England’s Daily Mail who proclaimed:‘We have no idea where it could be’: Confusion reigns on day of contradictions from baffled Malaysian authorities as they expand Boeing 777 search 350 miles [563 km] west into the Indian Ocean.

Despite 47 years of Asean, mistrust remains

Incredulously, in exchange for their willing cooperation, those who responded to Malaysia’s plea for help were sent on a wild goose chase by authorities, wasting fuel and resources in an area where Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was known not to have been at the time contact with it was lost.

It is mind-boggling that Malaysia, as a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) and prior to that the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA), would allow its fellow Asean member states, as well as others who volunteered to assist, to waste their time on what can only be described as a wild goose chase.

The reaction by some has been swift. Vietnam immediately suspended its participation, with deputy Minister of Transport, Pham Quy Tieu, telling Tuoi Tre News that “five days after the plane went missing, Vietnamese authorities only exchanged information with a Malaysian military official, who refused to provide any information about the search mission carried out by the Malaysian authorities”.

Despite 47 years having past since the Asean Declaration was signed in Bangkok, mistrust still exists between its members
Despite 47 years having past since the Asean Declaration was signed in Bangkok, mistrust still exists between its members Asean

Similar comments had been made earlier by China’s foreign minister, Wang Li, who told the New York Times, Malaysia was often refusing to answer questions because of “security reasons”.

With the Asean Economic Community (AEC) due to come into effect at the end of this year the Malaysian government’s handling of the search for Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 has served only to highlight how disunited the region really is.

If Asean member countries can’t freely exchange vital information with their contemporaries for something as serious as locating a missing aircraft with 239 people on board after 23 formal Asean summits, annual Ministerial Meetings, and thousands of smaller committee meetings over the past 47 years, one has to ask what hope there is for an integrated community where close cross-border cooperation will be a necessity.

Moreover, the citizens of Malaysia are entitled to ask how vulnerable their country is and how much value they receive from the US$4.2 billion slated for the country’s defense forces this year.

It is incomprehensible that an aircraft emitting no identification signature could fly across the Malaysia peninsula without the highest office holders in the land being alerted – even though it was in the early hours of the morning.

It is beyond belief that fighter jets were not scrambled to get “eyes on” the aircraft and to attempt to force or guide it to land, or that such aircraft would not have continued to shadow the airliner until certain that it no longer posed a threat to communities or structures on the ground.

While the fate of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 remains uncertain, it is abundantly clear that there are many lingering issues that need to be addressed before the planned AEC will bear any resemblance to the European Economic Community (EEC), commonly referred to as the Common Market, established in the northern hemisphere in 1958.

While Malaysia Boleh might have a catchy ring to it, one must ask Boleh Apa?

 

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 passengers

Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 was carrying a total of 239 people – 227 passengers (2 infants) and 12 crew members. Passengers on the flight came from 14 countries.

1. China – 152 adults and 1 infant

2. Malaysia – 38 people

3. Indonesia – 12 people

4. Australia – 6 people

5. France – 3 people

6. United States – 3 adults and 1 infant

7. New Zealand – 2 people

8. Ukraine – 2 people

9. Canada – 2 people

10. Russia – 1 person

11. Italy – 1 person

12. Taiwan, China – 1 person

13. Netherlands – 1 person

14. Austria – 1 person

 

 

An earlier version of this story was published in The Establishment Post, March 13, 2014 as Handling of Flight MH370 Undermines 47 Years of Asean & AEC plans

 

 

Feature photo Laurent Errera

 

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John Le Fevre is an Australian national with more than 40 years experience as a journalist, photographer, videographer and editor.

He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.

He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.

In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.

Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.

In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.

Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me

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