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Malaysia Picks Up Pieces After Back-to-Back Plane Tragedies
The Washington Diplomat / September 2014

By Larry Luxner

The night Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 vanished from radar screens an hour after takeoff from Kuala Lumpur en route to Beijing, politician Awang Adek Hussin was in between jobs, having recently been voted out of office by the opposition in his home state of Kelantan.

Awang had barely eased into his new position as Malaysia’s envoy to the United States when a second Malaysia Airlines jet fell out of the sky — this one shot down over eastern Ukraine — a little over four months after the first tragedy.

“I was on Capitol Hill,” the ambassador recalled. “We had just finished meeting [Rep.] Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and were walking down the hall, on our way to the office of [Rep.] Ami Bera (D-Calif.). Then my minister counselor, Hairul Reaza, got a text on his phone and said, ‘Oh my God, another crash.’ I was stunned. My mind suddenly flashed back to the first plane. I remember thinking, how could this happen to us again?”

Half a year after Flight 370 went down, not a trace of the Boeing 777-200ER has been found. Nor have the remains of the 239 passengers and crew onboard — despite a multinational search effort that quickly became the largest and most expensive in history.

It’s also aviation’s most enduring riddle ever, as teams from 26 countries immediately began scouring an enormous swath of Asia and the Indian Ocean looking for signs of the elusive jet without success. That search was still underway on July 17, when an anti-aircraft missile — presumably fired by pro-Russia rebels fighting the Ukrainian central government in Kiev — blew up Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, killing all 298 people aboard and further escalating tensions between Russia and the West.

“You can say it’s bad luck, but it’s difficult to think of two major incidents happening like this,” Awang told The Washington Diplomat in his only interview to local media since the downing of that second Boeing 777 aircraft. “The first one was a mystery; the second was totally man-made. It’s obvious that in that sense, it’s not related to the first. But this has been a very tough and challenging time for Malaysia.”

That’s an understatement. The twin disasters plunged this Southeast Asian nation of 30 million into mourning like nothing else in Malaysia’s 57 years as an independent country. After China, Malaysia lost the greatest number of citizens, 38 passengers and 12 crew, on Flight 370. Most of the crash victims of Flight 17, which was flying from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur, were Dutch, though 43 Malaysians (including 15 crew and two infants) were also on board the doomed aircraft.

Among the dead was Puan Sri Siti Amirah, the step-grandmother of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak. The 83-year-old woman was flying back to her native Indonesia to celebrate Hari Raya, the end of the Muslim fast month of Ramadan.

“It was a very sad day for Malaysia and also for the Netherlands,” Awang said. “The day I went to the Dutch Embassy to sign their book of condolences, Defense Secretary [Chuck] Hagel was there too.”

Yet the disaster also boosted the public image of Najib, who scored points at home and abroad for persuading rebel leader Alexander Borodai to turn over most of the bodies of those on board Flight 17, as well as the voice and flight data recorders, to Ukrainian authorities. Najib personally reached Borodai via cell phone, establishing a rapport with the scruffy premier of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic and eventually getting what he wanted — without offering payments or formal diplomatic recognition of any kind in return, according to Awang.

“Were any promises made? Not that I know of,” the ambassador told us. “I agree with the way our prime minister handled it. He said many times that he would do whatever he could for the families, and bringing home the remains was of uppermost importance to him. He was willing to set aside some diplomatic concerns that others might have had. In this type of arrangement, many things could have gone wrong, and he’d be blamed terribly if it didn’t go through.”

Despite the anger among his countrymen, Najib refrained from publicly blaming the rebels — or Russia — for shooting down the airliner. Instead, he used back channels and what he himself called “quiet diplomacy” to secure the return of the black boxes and human remains. Many Ukrainians were unhappy with the Malaysian delegation’s use of the honorific “excellency” in referring to Borodai, reported the New York Times, but Awang said the point was to get the job done.

“There’s no question in my mind the risk was worth it. The whole country rallied around him. We had a special parliamentary session, and for the first time in many years, even opposition leaders supported him, saying they’d have done the same thing. This was very uplifting to me, given the partisanship we have in my country,” the envoy said.

Although Malaysia took an apolitical, neutral stance that helped broker a deal with pro-Russia rebels, Awang expressed little doubt about what happened that day.

“The rebels say they didn’t do it, but they can’t hang onto this forever,” he said. “So if they were going to give up [the remains], they might as well have given them to us [instead of Ukrainian authorities]. Malaysia has the right; it was our plane.”

Awang, 59, is new to the world of diplomacy. A native of Bachok — a beach town about 20 miles from Malaysia’s border with Thailand — he has an MBA from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. Awang and his wife, Latifah, who earned a master’s degree in chemistry from West Virginia University, have five children, all of them back in Malaysia.

“I had just lost the last election by 201 votes out of 80,000 in my constituency in Bachok, when one day I got a call from the prime minister asking me to take this job,” said Awang, who had been the deputy minister of finance. “I told him, ‘I’m not a diplomat.’ He laughed and said, ‘That’s precisely why I’m asking you.’ He wanted somebody with a finance background. He said this is our most important diplomatic assignment, and so many of the issues here are trade, investment and finance issues.”

Ernest Bower, senior adviser and Southeast Asia expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said Awang is well-suited for the ambassador’s job, thanks mainly to his 17 years as a top official of Malaysia’s Central Bank, which he rates among the best in Asia.

“He’s a very capable guy, a technocrat, and he’s very comfortable dealing with Americans and with businesspeople,” the CSIS scholar told us. “He’s learning the ropes when it comes to diplomacy and bilateral relations, but his instincts are very good. He’s seasoned, he’s calm, he’s very open and he’s been spending a lot of time early on in his term reaching out to the administration, members of Congress and staffers, trying to understand how things happen in Washington, so that he could be effective in telling Malaysia’s story going forward.”

That story is one of economic progress. Growth is expected to reach or exceed 5 percent this year in Malaysia, which now ranks sixth in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2014 report, up from 12th place the year before. The country’s telecommunications and highway infrastructure is among the most developed in Asia, and the Kuala Lumpur skyline is dominated by the 1,483-foot Petronas Towers.

The U.S. is Malaysia’s single biggest foreign investor — led by corporate giants like Dell, Motorola, Coca-Cola, Intel and MetLife. That’s why one of Malaysia’s top priorities is to see quick ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a regional free trade agreement now being negotiated by 12 countries throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Passage of the TPP is also one of the primary goals of the White House — and was high on the agenda of President Obama’s three-day visit to Kuala Lumpur in April. The administration hopes the TPP will encourage economic and political reforms in Asia, but Congress is unlikely to even consider the sweeping trade pact until after the polarizing midterm elections in November.

Obama has had more flexibility to push his so-called Asia pivot, which has capitalized on China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the region to bolster America’s alliances with countries like Malaysia.

Awang said it’s difficult to imagine bilateral defense and security ties “getting much better” — especially since “aggressive Chinese tactics in the South China Sea have forced Malaysia to think about enhancing relations with the United States.”

Meanwhile, Malaysia is trying to be a regional leader in its own right. “Malaysia is very respected by many countries, especially smaller ones. They see Malaysia as a success. We are a leader in Islamic finance,” Awang noted.

In January 2015, Malaysia will assume the chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a powerful trading bloc whose 10 member states are home to 600 million people and boast a combined GDP of about $2.2 trillion. Malaysia, whose annual per-capita GDP stands at around $10,500, is considered by the World Bank to be an upper-middle-income country that has recorded 25 years of steady growth.

This year’s two aviation disasters, however, are sure to put a dent in Malaysia’s vibrant economy, in part because of a dramatic drop in Chinese tourism, though Bower said it “won’t be significant enough to rock Malaysia’s GDP,” which now exceeds $300 billion.

But the disappearance of Flight 370 did rock confidence in Malaysia’s prestige around the world, as Najib’s government faced widespread accusations of incompetence for delaying the release of vital information about the plane’s route.

In the hours immediately after air traffic controllers lost contact with the jet, conflicting reports and conspiracy theories began popping up all over the internet. Fishermen had sighted the plane’s wreckage off the coast of Vietnam. Flight 370 had secretly landed on an island near Borneo. The two Iranians who had boarded the plane in Kuala Lumpur with stolen passports were really terrorists. The jet had been hijacked and its passengers taken to Diego Garcia, site of a U.S. naval base in the Indian Ocean.

These rumors were quickly dispelled, but the mystery — and frustration for the families — continues.

Based on information initially provided by military radar, the search focused on a vast area extending from the southern Indian Ocean up into the Central Asian nation of Kyrgyzstan. In the weeks that followed, however, various satellite and transponder data pointed to remote tracts of the Indian Ocean off the coast of western Australia, hundreds of miles away from initial search sites.

Malaysia’s bungled response cost searchers valuable time and incensed relatives of the victims. In mid-April, around the time the batteries on the plane’s black boxes had finally given out, angry relatives held airline workers hostage for 11 hours at a Beijing hotel in an attempt to pry more information from the government.

The maelstrom cast an unflattering light on Malaysia and a political system riddled with nepotism and corruption. But the ambassador takes a kinder view and points out that his country had never before handled a crisis of this magnitude.

“When you handle such a crisis for the first time, there are no standard operating procedures on how to respond,” Awang said. “The government’s main concern at that time was to make sure the information was released to the victims’ families first. They were concerned about information getting out before that. I’m not defending these actions, but the circumstances must be understood.”

The ambassador conceded that his prime minister faced a firestorm of criticism over the way the incident played out.

“I supposed we never thought of something like that happening to us,” Awang told The Diplomat. “But I think after the first disaster, the country was much better prepared. Even the prime minister himself went to the airport within one hour of hearing about [the shooting down of] Flight 17.”

Bower agrees that the impact of the two disasters offset each other, in that Flight 370’s disappearance hurt Najib’s credibility in managing the response to disasters, while the downing of Flight 17 dramatically restored it.

And despite Najib’s delicate balancing act negotiating with pro-Russia forces in Ukraine, Bower predicted that the obliteration of the jet, as well as deliberate attempts by rebels to destroy evidence at the crash site, would have a “big impact” on Kuala Lumpur’s relations with Moscow.

“The Malaysians have squadrons of Russian fighter jets and other equipment, and there was a deal pending for Malaysia to buy anti-aircraft missiles. I don’t think Malaysians will tolerate their government going ahead with those contracts,” said Bower.

He added that if the evidence shows that pro-Russia rebels did blow Flight 17 out of the sky, “the Malaysians would also take a very active role — supported by the U.S. and Australia — for convictions and indictments of the perpetrators through international law and the United Nations.”

Awang declined to point an accusing finger at Moscow itself, saying only that “we are on record that we want to see whoever is responsible for bringing down our plane to be brought to justice and dealt with accordingly. We want to see the evidence. That’s why the black boxes were so important to us.”

He added: “I cannot say certain things, but I can convey the public statement by our prime minister that we want those responsible for this to be punished in accordance with international law.”

In the meantime, Kuala Lumpur is cleaning house. In early August, the government’s state investment fund announced it would pay the equivalent of $436 million to take Malaysia Airlines private, paving the way for a “complete overhaul” of the troubled carrier.

“The airline had been losing money even before these two disasters,” Awang said. “The government had to bail it out. To be fair, I’ve been told that their flights are still full. People understand that these disasters are not something that happens regularly.”

But that still leaves the enduring question of what brought down Flight 370. To this day, it’s not known if a mechanical failure, terrorism or pilot sabotage was the culprit. Investigators believe the plane flew into the Indian Ocean on autopilot until it ran out of fuel, though nothing is certain.

Australian officials are now leading a bathymetric survey of the 23,000-square-mile search area — an area slightly smaller than West Virginia — about 1,100 miles off Australia’s west coast. The $48 million effort to methodically scour the ocean floor begins this month and will take up to one year to complete.

“We remain fully committed to conducting a thorough undersea search of the likely impact zone in the Indian Ocean,” said Warren Truss, Australia’s deputy prime minister, in a July 23 press statement. “Australia owes it to the families of all of those on board Flight 370, the traveling public and indeed the wider world to solve this mystery.”

But it’s also possible the effort could take years, or even decades. Perhaps, Awang suggested, no one will ever know what caused Flight 370 to vanish without a trace.

“I have no idea. It’s difficult for me to rationalize how or why,” the ambassador said with a sigh. “I don’t want to speculate, because there’s no basis for speculation.”

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