from Asia Unbound

Why Malaysia Will Say Almost Nothing About the Missing Flight

March 12, 2014

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Politics and Government

With an international team of investigators still seemingly baffled about what happened to Malaysia Airlines flight MH370, which disappeared over the weekend, relatives of the passengers and diplomats from countries touched by the mishap have vented their frustration with the Malaysian government. For days, it seems, Malaysian officials and the state-owned carrier have released almost no information about the flight or working theories of why it vanished. Malaysia Airlines did not even inform relatives for fifteen hours that the plane had disappeared, sending the distraught families to a hotel in Beijing to wait, and Kuala Lumpur’s envoys still have mostly kept the relatives in the dark days later.

Over one hundred friends and relatives of the vanished passengers signed a petition on Monday calling on the Malaysian government to be more transparent and to answer the relatives’ questions. Several of the relatives threw bottles at Malaysia Airlines employees who came to speak with them in Beijing, where the missing plane had been headed, but mostly the officials maintained their tight-lipped approach.

The frustration felt by families of the missing is understandable and reasonable, but no one should have expected much better from the Malaysian government. Although theoretically a democracy with regular, contested elections, Malaysia has been ruled since independence by the same governing coalition, one that has become known for its lack of transparency and disinterest—even outright hostility—to the press and inquiring citizens. For a relatively wealthy country, Malaysia is also unusually prone to corruption. Since the 9/11 attacks and the revelation that al-Qaeda members had convened planning meetings in Malaysia, the government has become intensely controlling of any information about potential terror threats, while maintaining a relatively liberal visa policy for arrivals.

For more on why Malaysia’s secrecy about the plane is hardly surprising, read my new piece at Bloomberg Businessweek.