Malaysians are chafing at scathing Chinese criticism over the lost MH370 passenger jet, with fed-up officials, media and citizens now hitting back after being assailed as incompetent liars and murderers.
Authorities in Kuala Lumpur have been on the defensive since the Beijing-bound Malaysia Airlines flight went missing on March 8 with 239 people aboard, most of them Chinese citizens.
In addition to near-daily displays of fury from Chinese relatives, China’s tightly controlled state media have heaped opprobrium on the Malaysian government and airline, while the secretive Chinese Communist Party has urged more transparency in the investigation.
A letter from the relatives, blasting Malaysia’s behavior as “irresponsible” and “inhumane,” demanded that China now mount its own investigation. And a US law firm says it is consulting with Chinese families on possible legal action against Malaysia Airlines and aircraft maker Boeing.
Malaysia has largely held fire — China, the world’s second-largest economy, is its primary trading partner. Yet the strain is starting to show.
Malaysian Defense and Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who had trodden lightly on China in often-testy press briefings on the crisis, was asked by a Chinese reporter on Tuesday about delays and misdirections in Malaysia’s initial response.
Hishammuddin shot back that time was wasted early in the search by Chinese satellite images showing purported plane debris in the South China Sea. Beijing later acknowledged the images were false, and the search for wreckage is now focused far away in the Indian Ocean.
A day later, the minister insisted that “history will judge us well.”
“Anybody who has gone through this, what we have gone through... has indicated to me that we have done quite an admirable job,” he said, adding that no country has a monopoly on grief — the plane carried 50 Malaysian citizens.
“For the Chinese families there, they must also understand that we in Malaysia have also lost loved ones,” Hishammuddin said.
State-controlled press have joined in, with the Malay Mail newspaper running a front-page editorial yesterday headlined: “MH370 — Malaysia under siege.”
“Countries whom we call friends must now do more to prove their friendship,” it said.
“These governments seem happy to allow their citizens to complain and even accuse us of withholding information,” it said.
The editorial urged Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to rally Malaysians to defend the country’s “reputation and honor.”
The plane inexplicably diverted from its Kuala Lumpur-Beijing flight path. Malaysia now believes it plunged into the Indian Ocean far to the south, and that all aboard were lost.
In their daily press briefings, Malaysian officials have made a series of contradictory statements that added to the confusion, including conflicting information on the number and ethnicities of passengers who boarded the flight with stolen passports.
There have also been about-turns regarding the crucial sequence of events in the plane’s cockpit before it veered off course, and Malaysia’s armed forces have been criticized for failing to intercept the diverted plane when it appeared on military radar.
Such missteps have fueled families’ anger. Scores of Chinese relatives were allowed by authorities in Beijing — who normally keep a tight lid on public dissent — to protest at Malaysia’s embassy on Tuesday, shouting that Kuala Lumpur authorities were “murderers.”
A day later, relatives called the ambassador a “liar” and a “rogue” during a meeting in Beijing.
The New Straits Times, a Malaysian government mouthpiece, said in an editorial on Thursday that “even abject misery cannot excuse the accusation of murder,” echoing similar commentaries in other Malaysian media.
Criticism from China is particularly rankling for the ruling United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), which champions the interests of multicultural Malaysia’s majority group, Muslim-ethnic Malays.
UMNO regularly stokes Malay resentment against the country’s sizable ethnic Chinese community, including reviving memories of an ethnic-Chinese communist insurgency in the 1950s.
Jahabar Sadiq, editor of the independent Web portal Malaysian Insider, called the Chinese criticism unfair, saying that Beijing, with its far greater air and sea capability, also has been unable to find the plane.
“The search for this missing plane has shown them the limits of their technology, their muscle. It puts China in its place,” he said. “It will take them some time before they get the same kind of respect as America, England or Australia would get.”
Malaysian social media sites have bristled with anger over the Chinese calls for more information-sharing.
“China demanding the full truth and complete transparency about the plane crash? How about they come clean about Tiananmen Square first?” read one representative posting, referring to China’s violent suppression of pro-democracy protests in 1989.