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Politics And Power Complicate The Airliner Search


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Robert Siegel. We begin this hour with the politics of a vanishing airliner. The search for Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 now covers well over 2 million square miles. Twenty-six countries are still involved, 10 days after the plane's disappearance. In a few moments, we'll hear from the U.S. Navy about their efforts.

CORNISH: Meantime, China's ambassador to Malaysia says background checks of Chinese passengers on the plane turn up no links to terrorism. And in Malaysia, there are accusations that the government is mismanaging and politicizing the mystery. Here's NPR's Anthony Kuhn.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: At a press briefing today, acting Transport Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said the government's priority is to find the plane. He accused foreign media of bringing up the issue of domestic politics, which he said is irrelevant.

HISHAMUDDIN HUSSEIN: The search for MH370 is bigger than politics. I urge all Malaysians to put our differences aside, and unite during this difficult time as we focus on finding the aircraft and the 239 people onboard.

KUHN: The pilot of the plane, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, happens to be a supporter of the opposition coalition and its leader, Anwar Ibrahim. This month, the court sentenced Anwar to jail for sodomizing a former aide. The charges are more than a decade old, and Anwar says they're politically motivated. Some government-linked media have speculated that the pilot may have diverted the plane in protest against the court's ruling.

S. Ramakrishnan, a senator with the opposition Democratic Action Party, calls these allegations ridiculous.

MALAYSIAN SEN. S. RAMAKRISHNAN: I think this is very absurd, blaming the opposition leader for this kind of a crisis. This shows that they are more keen in absolving the responsibility than solving the issue.

KUHN: Meanwhile, he says, the plane crisis has uncovered a string of government blunders.

RAMAKRISHNAN: They should be more serious in their work - in the management of the immigration, flight security, national security and everything related. The laxity, the carelessness in the whole management is being exposed now.

KUHN: Clive Kessler is a longtime observer of Malaysian politics at the University of New South Wales, in Australia. He says that while any government would have hard time managing such a crisis, Malaysia's government is falling back on its old, outdated ways.

CLIVE KESSLER: The way the Malaysian government is handling it is that they're playing from their playbook for domestic politics in which basically, you tell everybody: Look, we will tell you what you need to know, when you need to know it and not a minute before and meanwhile, just shut up, hmm?

KUHN: Malaysia's ruling National Front Coalition has held power for more than half a century. It won a narrow majority in Parliament in general elections last year, but it lost the popular vote. Kessler says the ruling coalition has allowed itself to be held hostage by a conservative Islamist Malay faction. This has alienated much of the Malaysian middle class and ethnic minority Chinese and Indian, many of whom have gone over to the opposition.

The country, Kessler says, is stuck in a protracted crisis of governance that shows in the handling of the missing plane incident.

KESSLER: What this has shown is the deterioration and the increasing lack of coherence and performative competence of the Malaysian state.

KUHN: Many opposition members sympathize with the relatives of the missing flight's passengers, most of whom are Chinese. Some of them have become so frustrated at the lack of information from the Malaysian government that today, they threatened to go on a hunger strike.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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