Editorial: Plane search casts grim light on Malaysia

Last updated 05:00 22/03/2014

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OPINION: The disappearance of Flight MH370 has astounded the world.

How could a 64-metre plane slip out of view - of radar, of satellites, of people - for so long?

Every scrap of speculation has been aired, every theory indulged. One day after the plane vanished, Rupert Murdoch claimed that it "confirmed" a jihadist plot against China. The pilots were zealots; the pilots were heroes. Secret island runways, an attack on Israel, a cargo full of gold bullion - each was suggested.

All the theories revealed was what an utter mystery this has been. For the families of those on board, they made the past fortnight excruciating.

Perhaps the confusion will begin to clear with the Australian search in the Indian Ocean, far off the coast of Perth. Finding debris from the plane there would seem to make an accident more likely.

Yet it will take time to know for sure, and maybe we won't; the plane's "black box" is probably thousands of metres under the ocean.

What is plain, however, is the Malaysian Government's alarming response to this crisis.

The enormous global attention on the missing plane has brought, as calamities like this always do, a matching scrutiny of the people running the search.

They have not come out of it well. Certainly, it may be that Malaysian officials could not have done anything else to find the plane more swiftly.

But their handling of information, and their conduct towards families of the passengers, reveal the authoritarian style of the Malaysian state.

In public appearances, senior government figures have been evasive and contradictory. Vital information about the plane was released days after its disappearance - including that military radar had tracked it, and that it had continued to communicate for several hours after turning around.

Official press conferences have been debacles, with attacks on foreign media and the ejection of protesting relatives. These family members, some of whom had flown to Malaysia from China, have been banned from speaking to reporters.

Some government figures have tried to use the crisis to tar Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Malaysian investigators told British newspapers that pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a "fanatic" for supporting Anwar.

This is nonsense. The pilot's motivations and involvement are unclear, but Anwar is a courageous, liberal Muslim figure who has fought to clean up Malaysia's corruption and dirty elections. For his trouble, he has been repeatedly hounded by the Government on objectionable (and likely trumped-up) "sodomy" charges. Supporting him does not equate to fanaticism.

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Meanwhile, Malaysia continues to be ruled by the same coalition that has governed it for 57 years. They have overseen great economic growth in recent decades, but they have also maintained power by repression, including violently breaking up demonstrations and mismanaging elections.

Whatever we eventually find out about Flight MH370, the fraught search for the plane has cast a light on Malaysia's repressive rulers.

- The Dominion Post

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