After the disappearance of Flight 370, the Malaysian government faces 6 big questions


Malaysia's Minister of Transport Hishamuddin Hussein pauses before responding to queries from the media during a press conference about the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner MH370, Thursday, March 13, 2014, in Sepang, Malaysia. (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

The Malaysian authorities have been slammed by many people for the confusing, and at times contradictory, statements, in the case of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. It's a situation that has left relatives and friends of those missing not only upset and bewildered, but increasingly angry.

As the search drags on, the anger is beginning to spread. People are asking questions not only of Malaysia's actions in the search for Flight 370, but also what the apparent problems with that search say about the Malaysian government.

Here's some of the big problems being raised:

Why was it so easy for people to get on board the flight with fake passports?

It quickly emerged after the flight went missing that at least two passengers on board were flying on fake passports. These two men are not believed to have been behind the plane's disappearance, but their trip to Kuala Lumpar does raise some big questions: Why did they travel all the way from Iran to Malaysia in an apparent bid to get to Europe?

The answer, apparently, is because they could not only buy a stolen passport there, but they could use it to get on board a flight to Europe. Malaysia is one of many countries that apparently ignores Interpol's database of stolen passports.

Why can't authorities get their message straight?

Simple facts released by the authorities have turned out to be wrong, sometimes bizarrely so. For example, on Monday Azharuddin Abdul Rahman said five passengers had checked in but never boarded the plane, and thus their luggage was removed. The implication was that there could not have been any bombs in the luggage. It wasn't true, however. Four passengers had booked tickets, but never turned up at the airport. Their luggage was never on board to be removed.

Stranger still, Azharuddin said that the two passengers on-board the flight on stolen passports did not look Asian, but instead looked like Mario Balotelli, an Italian soccer player of Ghanaian descent. Balotelli looks very little like the two Iranian men who were later revealed.

What information is the government withholding?

Other facts appear to have simply been left out. It apparently took four days for Malaysian authorities to release reports that military radar had picked up signals that could have been the plane, significantly off course. This information appeared to show that the plane was heading west, instead of east toward its destination in China, and it may be why the search for the plane has spread to the Indian Ocean. As the Times has noted, it was only under a "barrage of intense questioning" from reporters that officials admitted this possibility.

Additionally, U.S. officials have also told the Post today that the aircraft's engine seems to have been running for four hours after it disappeared. This information was apparently shared by Malaysian officials, but not made public.

What role is corruption playing?

According to Transparency International, Malaysia comes 53rd out of 177 countries in terms of corruption. In another survey that Ernst & Young conducted among executives last year, 39 percent of respondents felt that bribery or corrupt practices were widespread in the country, according to Malaysian Insider. Even if corruption didn't play a direct role in whatever happened to Flight 370, this factor will likely be scrutinized in light of Malaysia's confusing response to its disappearance, and the high-profile revelations about fake passports.

If terrorism played a role, what will Malaysia say about it?

Joshua Kurlantzick, a Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council on Foreign Relations, explains in Businessweek that Malaysia's troubled relationship with other Muslim-majority nations, its liberal visa policy, and its co-operation with the U.S. and Britain has led it to adopt a secretive approach to terrorism. While there is no reason to assume a terror attack right now, Kurlantzick writes, "do not expect the Malaysian government to be the one providing any answers to the public if it turns out terrorism was involved."

Where is the accountability?

Malaysia has been dominated by the United Malays National Organization since independence 1957. It's closed political system runs largely on patronage, the government is rarely criticized by a largely state-controlled press, and opposition leaders run the risk of being jailed: Notably, just before Flight 370 disappeared, Anwar Ibrahim, a prominent and charismatic opposition leader, was found guilty under a rarely used sodomy law, a move that former presidential candidate Al Gore called "extremely disturbing" on his blog.

Some Malaysians are beginning to wonder if such a system has created a systematic lack of accountability. “Malaysians have come to accept that their leaders don’t answer questions,” Ambiga Sreenevasan, a lawyer in the country, told the New York Times. “When you are not seriously challenged in any meaningful way, of course you get complacent and comfortable.”

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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Adam Taylor · March 13