The 2 day tripartite ministerial meeting (Tripartite) involving Malaysia, Australia and China ended 22nd July 2016 with a decision to suspend the search for MH370 should the search in the remaining 10,000 sq. km return empty handed. Many families of passengers were relieved that the search was to be ‘suspended’ and not ‘terminated’ while many sections of the media reported the Ministerial communique as paving the way for an exit from the search.
On the sidelines was another distressing display of callous disregard of families by Malaysia during the last ten days. Two and a half years on, it seems the establishment there has not learnt the essential lessons in courtesy, respect and dignity in dealings with the families of passengers on MH370. During this period, it has stubbornly refused to acknowledge the existence of and engage with Voice 370, the Family Association of MH370 passenger families. This in spite of explicit International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) provisions that recognise the role of Family Associations.
This time too, the Malaysian Government didn’t acknowledge a formal request from Voice 370 for a meeting in Kuala Lumpur prior to the Tripartite. China too failed to respond to a similar request. Australia alone responded and while the Minister was unavailable to meet the families, the officials from JACC and the Australian Transportation Safety Board (ATSB) made time to meet the families ahead of the meeting. One hopes that for Malaysia, learning happens by association and that it is never too late. It is hard to fathom the obdurate Malaysians: is it rooted in fear, disdain, or a culture that brooks no challenge or questioning?
The families were told through email (and in many cases also through a phone call from the Malaysian Airlines Family Support Centre ) that they would be informed of the outcome of the Tripartite before the scheduled Press conference on 22nd July. About a dozen family members who had assembled in Putrajaya, outside the Malaysian Prime Minister’s office in anticipation of a briefing received a rude surprise. Neither was a briefing planned nor was access to the Press Conference allowed. Families received an email before the Press Conference informing them of the suspension of search should the underwater search yield nothing, and if there was no new information to go with. No opportunity of an engagement with the authorities was afforded to question, clarify, and better understand the decisions and their implications The increasingly agitated families were whisked away under the pretext of a briefing planned at a different location by airline officials –an unlit room of sorts without any seating. A strong fear arose that the doors would be locked and the family members held captive.
As suspected, no briefing was intended. On insistent questioning, the airline official merely said he was following instructions and knew nothing about a briefing. The families then quickly trooped back to the original location outside the Prime Minister’s office in the hope that at least a couple of them be allowed entry to the Press Conference. The Ministers were in, the officials were in, the media representatives were in. The families who had travelled a considerable distance to the venue were kept out.
In a nutshell, the families rather than be dealt with as interested parties – an active participant in the decisions that involved their loved ones – were dealt with at best as serial protesters who had to be kept at bay, distracted, and at worst, as dangerous, requiring to be isolated or better still, altogether removed from the scene.
This experience fits a pattern of abominable conduct, and runs contrary to the protestations of care and concern for the families by the authorities. If one wishes to be wicked and charitable at he same time towards Malaysia, we may wish to acknowledge that communication has graduated from SMSs to email. Who knows, the next step might be something that is read out online to a closed group of families. Seeking a face-to-face dialogue seems a far cry.
If one looks for a moment beyond the shabby treatment that families have receieved, into the substance of the Ministers’ statement, the families have welcomed the ‘suspension’ if necessary rather than ‘termination’ of the search. For them, this is not mere semantics with both effectively pointing to the same thing.
Families read into the Ministers’ statement a continued commitment to the search for MH370 and investigation in all aspects linked to its disappearance and will hold Malaysia accountable for actions that follow through on this commitment / intent. This includes the commitment to review the search area and extend it or chalk out an altogether new area if ‘new information’ that emerges necessitates such a step.
While it is not clear what constitutes such information and where it might be sourced from, the families believe that such new information / evidence has already washed ashore on and off the coast of East/ South Africa, and more is likely. Families expect to see concerted action to mobilise and incentivise local communities in coastal East / South Africa, Madagascar, Mauritius, and other areas based on expert oceanographers advice in the search for debris washed ashore. Furthermore, an ongoing process of refinement in reverse drift modelling of ocean currents too could provide clues that families expect will not be ignored.
Families also expect to see Malaysia press hard on France to turn over the very first debris find, the flaperon (found on Le Reunion Island) that it has retained custody of. It is close to a year now since France took possession of it and has failed to report fully what its investigation has concluded. France’s silence and apparent non-cooperation may well be tit-for-tat for the lack of cooperation from Malaysia that the French received during their own investigation into MH370 and into just a matter of legal tangles within the French system.
Importantly, families believe that the continued commitment to search and investigations means little if Malaysia does not actively engage a wider range of countries and seek their commitment for resources on a contingent basis. The families would like to see Malaysia set the process in motion and announce a sizeable contribution to the entire search and investigation to, as the saying goes, “put money where the mouth is”. Malaysia is a wealthy nation. It has generous friends, just in case.
Families also expect that sooner than later there will be a comprehensive update on the criminal and other aspects of investigation as well. Surely merely labelling something as ‘criminal’ doesn’t consign it to the dark, inaccessible dungeons of some shadowy world where ‘normal’ people are not permitted a peek at the goings on, a world wherein an indeterminable timeline of investigation ensures that speculation becomes an acceptable substitute for facts and truth.