Kuala Lumpur, July 18: The downing of a Malaysia Airlines passenger jet with 298 people aboard heaped new distress on a nation still stung by the trauma and global stigma of flight MH370‘s disappearance four months ago. For the second time this year, Malaysians awoke on Friday to black newspaper front pages bearing the grim news of yet another air disaster that left dozens of their countrymen dead or missing, and linking their nation once again to a dreadful tragedy.
“Why is there no peace of mind in our country? Tragedy after tragedy is happening to us,” said G. Subramaniam, whose son was aboard MH370. Malaysia Airlines flight MH17 was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur when it came down late Thursday over eastern Ukraine. Forty-three Malaysians were aboard.
US officials said it was shot down by a surface-to-air missile, a possible casualty of a violent rebellion in the area by pro-Russia insurgents. While exact responsibility for the crash remains to be established, the new crisis is tearing open festering wounds in the Malaysian psyche caused by MH370.
‘Too soon after MH370’
“Just heard the terrible news. I don’t think we are ready to accept this so soon after (the) MH370 tragedy,” badminton ace Lee Chong Wei, the country’s top sporting star, said on Twitter, one of countless Malaysians to vent renewed anguish on social media following the latest crash.
With MH370, Malaysians watched in dismay as their government and a flagship national brand came under heavy international criticism for their inability to explain what happened to the plane. It mysteriously diverted off its Kuala Lumpur-Beijing route on March 8 with 239 passengers and crew and is now believed to have crashed in a remote part of the Indian Ocean, though no trace has been found.
Passenger relatives have alleged Malaysian incompetence and a cover-up, Malaysia Airlines bookings have plummeted, and the country has become the butt of grim jokes worldwide. Fears also have emerged of a damaging impact on Malaysia’s important tourist sector — visitors from China, a key source of arrivals, dropped 20 percent in April, according to the latest Malaysian figures.
Two-third of MH370’s passengers were Chinese nationals. There also were 38 Malaysians aboard. The twin tragedies are destroying Malaysians’ sense of their multi-cultural country as a bastion of stability and prosperity in an often turbulent Southeast Asia, said Ibrahim Suffian, head of Malaysia’s leading polling firm.
“Malaysians have always felt shielded from calamity and tragedy. Typhoons, earthquakes, wars — it’s always not us, but Indonesia, Burma or the Philippines. But that sense of security is now shattered,” he said. MH17 is especially painful for Muslim-majority Malaysia as it comes during the fasting month of Ramadan, a time of joyful family gatherings that culminates later this month with Eid al-Fitr, Islam’s biggest festival.
Already fresh questions are being asked of Malaysia, particularly why the state carrier was flying over an active war zone.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, who lamented after MH17’s crash that 2014 had been “a tragic year for Malaysia”, defended the airline, saying the flight path was deemed safe by international air authorities, though Malaysia Airlines said Friday it would no longer fly the route.
Suffian noted that Malaysia — often riven by bitter ethnic, political and religious bickering — found a rare unity in grief over MH370.
Top opposition figure Lim Kit Siang said Malaysians on Friday “reel with incredulity, shock and grief at another major air disaster to hit the country involving another Boeing 777 jet in less than five months”.
But Lim, normally a harsh critic of Najib’s government, said Malaysians should rally around the premier.
Some, however, believe MH17 will do further damage globally to Malaysia’s image.
“Their sense of pride and well-being already dented by the handling of MH370 by the country’s leadership and the airline’s management, … they will be hard pressed to live down this one, feeling accused and held (unfairly) responsible, not knowing how best to express themselves and be free of taint,” said K. S. Narendran, an Indian citizen whose wife was aboard MH370.