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The persisting mystery of MH370

It is over 800 days since Malaysian Airlines flight MH370 disappeared. Pieces of debris, suspected to be from the aircraft, have lain in Madagascar for over three weeks now, along with more than a dozen personal belongings found on the same beach where these were found. They remain unclaimed by Malaysia, the country leading the investigation into the disappearance.

MH370 with 239 passengers and crew simply vanished in the early hours of March 8, 2014, leaving governments and the public the world over perplexed, and the passengers’ families anguished. Based on limited data reported to be available, it was concluded that the flight ended somewhere in the southern Indian Ocean, and that the passengers and crew were presumed dead. While Malaysia has been responsible for the overall investigation, Australia is leading the search in the designated search zone, to its west, in the Indian Ocean. The initial search area of 60,000 sq km identified in 2014 was extended and now it spans a total area of 120,000 sq km. The underwater search spread over the last 15 months or so has yielded rich data on topography under the sea but no signs of the aircraft. Just about 15,000 sq km remain to be searched and this is expected to be completed in the next two to three months.

With every sweep of the ocean floor, there is growing pessimism about the outcome of the search, and questions are already being raised about the correctness of the search zone. And there is a growing din to ensure that Malaysia stays committed to the search and investigation well beyond the 120,000-sq km area.

In recent months, notably since the first piece of debris, the flaperon, was located in July 2015 on Le Reunion island off Madagascar, thousands of kilometres from the designated search area, Malaysia’s response to the debris findings has invited harsh criticism for its premature confirmation of it being from MH370 in the case of the flaperon, and inexplicable tardiness in securing those found in the recent weeks and in conveying them for further analysis.

Five pieces of debris found by Blaine Alan Gibson, what look like aircraft parts based on photographs that have been widely circulated, have remained in Madagascar waiting to be claimed by Malaysia. It has been reported that a Malaysian official deputed to secure the items has had his trip cancelled twice for reasons not known. Furthermore, it has just been reported that Malaysia’s Transport Minister has ruled out any connection between the personal belongings found on Riake Beach (the same beach where the other five pieces were found). Both these facts are astounding and convey a sense that Malaysia is less than sincere about its professed commitment to the search and investigation.

There is no word from Malaysia on why it should take weeks rather than days to secure the debris and put it through a thorough analysis. This is inspite of the glare of the media, which have reported these finds extensively, and experts giving the opinion that the finds are certainly worthy of closer examination. Time is of the essence, and one would have expected a government whose moves are watched closely and criticised routinely, to have acted with alacrity. One wonders if this government is impervious to any critique or suggestion, or marches to a different time-scale towards goals that are odds with what it has made public.

The most shocking of them all is the assertion by the Malaysian Transport Minister dismissing any relevance for the personal belongings found on the Riake Beach, without basis or due process. These items, just by the fact of being found in the vicinity of other debris finds, should automatically be of interest. That is but common sense. But as mentioned earlier, these have not even been lifted from Madagascar, and no Malaysian official has even physically seen or taken custody of it yet. In the normal course, one would expect that they will be examined, made available to families to examine and stake a claim if positively identified, and be matched with CCTV footage at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport that is available with the government. Such a course will be both sensible and sensitive to the feelings of the passengers’ families, which have struggled to make sense of the tragedy that has befallen them.

Is the Malaysian government serious at all about investigating it thoroughly, acting professionally and complying with commitments under international conventions, and fulfilling promises to the families? Its failure to act expeditiously feeds suspicions about its intentions: that it perhaps hopes to bring this matter to a quiet end. It brings back to memory the bungling that characterised the initial weeks after the aircraft went missing, the unwillingness to own up any responsibility for the disappearance, and inferences of incompetence.

Given that the search in the Indian Ocean is winding down, and the Malaysian government has made public more than once that the search will not be extended if the present search area yields nothing, we may well be facing the prospect of a final report on the investigation that offers no answers. The argument that funds have dried up betrays a lack of will. This is likely to retain the air of mystery about what really happened to MH370. Importantly, it will allow an uneasiness and nagging doubts about safe air travel to fester.

In light of the bona fides and the competence of Malaysia being in question besides the utter lack of any sign that the multi-member investigation team is vested with enough resources and independence to carry forward the investigation under the stewardship of Malaysia, it is important that the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) steps in to constitute an ‘independent’ investigation team of experts who are suitably empowered and funded adequately to carry out its functions with a mandate to assess all available evidence related to MH370, and chart the course of the investigation from here on. The ICAO has powers to act thus and it is time that the body steps in more visibly and directly oversees the search for MH370 and the truth.

It is time for air passengers from various nationalities: parliamentarians, industry captains, non-profit organisations, self employed, artists… people from all walks of life, to urge the ICAO through their country’s representative to accord due priority to this issue in the larger public interest. While it is easy to be lulled by the thought that air travel is the safest mode of travel because deaths per million passenger miles is the lowest, these mean nothing when you consider the prospect that it might be you who goes missing when the next time a plane is allowed to vanish into thin air.

(The author’s wife, Chandrika Sharma, was on MH370. As Executive Secretary of the International Collective in Support of Fish Workers, she was on her way to Ulan Bator, Mongolia to attend an FAO conference. E-mail:

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Printable version | Apr 21, 2021 3:48:05 AM |

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