Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak addresses the media following the MH17 crash

In the dark days after 9/11, one light shone brighter than any other — then-president George W. Bush’s political career. Bush’s approval rating came in at a nosebleed-inducing 90% on September 21 that year, higher than it ever was or would be again. A nation shrouded in terror and scarred by injustice responded to a firm hand; righteous fury was given an outlet. Today, more than a decade later, there are echoes of this in Malaysia.

Prime Minister Najib Razak has his sails full at the moment. While other leaders wasted no time lambasting Russia for shooting down MH17, the Malaysian government was relatively muted. Initial grief over the incident was punctuated by grumbling over the government’s perceived less-than-critical stance, and comparisons were made to the stumbling manner in which the disappearance of MH370 was handled. But Najib had a plan.

Tuesday’s revelation that Najib had brokered the release of the bodies and black boxes from MH17 to Malaysian representatives garnered international acclaim — some of it with a barely concealed note of surprise. The New York Times best illustrates this split, saying Najib had “apparently achieved what pressure from far more powerful nations had failed to accomplish” even as the deal resulted from “an unusual spate of diplomacy”.

The reaction in Malaysia was distinctly more positive, with Najib lauded for his “quiet diplomacy” and his decision to avoid going for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s jugular and instead engaging directly with rebel leader Alexander Borodai. Even Najib’s most bitter political rivals are onside for now, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, normally the most persistent of gadflies.

Najib’s political cachet has never been higher, even without a clean slate. And while it would be tremendously churlish to list the numerous failings of his administration at this juncture, there is a tinge of irony inherent in secret negotiations proving so successful for a government that has been hammered so often for its lack of transparency.

In Malaysia, shock has given way to anger and exhortations to not forgive or forget. There is also a feeling of unfair persecution, particularly towards Malaysia Airlines being used as a shorthand for the country’s problems; even independent news portals, normally the lone providers of oxygen to opposition viewpoints, have called for support for the national carrier and spoken out against those blaming it for the MH17 incident.

Crikey has been particularly prominent among those who have provided a platform for finger-pointers. Evidence to the contrary, however, continues to accumulate. The airspace in which the plane was flying was not subject to restrictions. Indeed, more than 800 flights had flown the same corridor over Ukraine in the week before MH17 was shot down. The best analogy comes from James Fallows, who writes that MH17’s flight path at 33,000 feet was “neither cutting it razor-close nor bending the rules” — it was legal and safe, “in much the way that driving 63 in a 65-mile-per-hour zone would be”.

Malaysia Airlines has been kept aloft for the past 15 years only by financial prestidigitation of the sort of scale that can only be pulled off by government-linked companies. It hasn’t helped that the ruthless efficiency and expansion of AirAsia, a Malaysian aviation success story, has shown it up over that period; a proposed share-swap deal between the two fell apart in 2012. But Malaysia Airlines is hardly the only loss-making national carrier, and its financial problems have nothing to do with the events of this year.

The reality is that the airline was confronted with an utterly unprecedented aviation incident in March, and an utterly unprovoked act of hostility last week. Malaysia isn’t at war, nor is it likely to be, but what happened to MH17 is a war crime. Far too many citizens of far too many nations have been made the victims of a conflict they did not participate in.

Cruel fate has given Najib a chance to prove his mettle, and Malaysia needs him to take it. Now, as in March with MH370, there are calls for togetherness as Malaysians of all faiths and backgrounds huddle in prayer and sympathy. Perhaps this time it will last; perhaps the usual descent into bigotry will be staved off for a while. There is unity to be found among the debris, but the continuing tragedy of Malaysia is that once again, so outrageous and outlandish a catastrophe was required for a search to begin.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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