Missing plane provides lesson on how not to respond to disaster

By Tania Branigan  /  The Guardian, BEIJING

Thu, Mar 27, 2014 - Page 9

The grief and anger that boiled over outside the Malaysian embassy in Beijing on Tuesday had been brewing for weeks, not for hours.

Protests by relatives of the Chinese passengers on the missing Malaysia Airlines plane were sparked by Monday night’s statement that the flight had been lost with all lives — and its ham-fisted delivery via English-language text messages reading: “We have to assume beyond all reasonable doubt that MH370 has been lost and none of those on board survived.”

However, they were fueled by 18 days of muddled briefings, contradictions and mismanagement by Malaysian authorities, which have left families with little if any faith in the country’s good will, openness or ability to handle the crisis.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak did not even appear publicly to address the disappearance until a week after the flight vanished; he has done so just once more since then.

The final straw was the ambassador to China’s failure to arrive for a Tuesday morning meeting that relatives had been promised, one of the protesters said.

It is not clear whether there was a delay or simply a miscommunication, but when Ambassador Iskandar Bin Sarudin subsequently met family members, he did not help matters by declining to answer most questions.

“They don’t respect us at all,” Steven Wang said outside the Malaysian embassy.

“From the beginning, they just hide everything. I don’t think this kind of government [of liars] … could solve anything,” he said.

Like many relatives — not just in China, but elsewhere — he felt Malaysia had been too swift to rule out the possibility of survivors with no wreckage in sight.

“There is not even evidence that the flight has crashed and they have said it’s over, and that no one has survived,” he said.

“If you find something — OK, we accept [that]. But just from data analysis, you say the flight has crashed?” he said.

Earlier, families had accused Malaysia of wasting precious time by failing to share or to act on information swiftly enough. Lives might even have been saved had the government been more efficient and transparent, they suggested; at the least, searchers would be closer to finding the wreckage — or might have done so already.

Whether that is true or not, there are certainly questions about why the government took so long to say its radar data suggested the plane had turned around and flown back across the Malaysian Peninsula, making the search in the South China Sea pointless.

Certainly, they faced a highly confusing situation in which many potential information sources had to be sought, assessed and tested against each other.

However, communication seemed to be a problem even internally; officials have contradicted themselves and each other in public briefings. US sources have also suggested that the country was initially slow to take up many of the offers of help it received.

Critics say the incident has shown the shortcomings of Malaysia’s political system and the cronyist, elitist nature of its leadership.

That said, the unprecedented and bizarre nature of the case would have challenged any government, let alone the leaders of a developing country which lacks the capacity for much of the complex work required in the investigation.

The key breakthrough also came from unprecedented work to analyze satellite data, a time-consuming process.

Though officials declined to answer or brushed aside key questions throughout the case, they were certainly more transparent than Chinese leaders would have been in their place, responding to foreign and domestic media on a daily basis.

Some have suggested that Chinese families’ suspicions of deliberate deceit — rather than ineptness or incompetence — says as much about their domestic experiences of government as it does about Malaysia’s handling of affairs.

Persuading other countries to hand over radar and satellite data was never going to be an easy task in a region fraught with tensions.

Other problems seem to have arisen from understandable decisions implemented badly.

At a news conference in Kuala Lumpur on Tuesday, airline officials defended the use of text messages as a “last resort” to ensure that family members did not hear the news first from media if they could not be reached by a telephone call or in person.

“Our sole and only motivation last night [Monday] was to ensure that in the incredibly short amount of time available to us, the families heard the tragic news before the world did,” Malaysia Airlines chief executive Ahmad Jauhari Yahya said.

Admirable as that intention was, the implementation clearly went awry: the families gathered in Beijing could easily have been briefed en masse and the message was sent in English, a language that most of them could not read. The Chinese version did not follow until later.

The lesson for governments — not just Malaysia’s — is that clear and coherent information is what relatives need most when they face a bewildering loss and complicated investigation. Swift reassurance that a country’s most senior leaders are doing their utmost helps too. Sending caregivers, supplying flights and offering belated statements of sympathy are simply not enough.