A year on, MH370 still a mystery, errors go unpunished

by Elizabeth Zachariah
The Malaysian Insider
8 March 2015

One year since Malaysia Airlines (MAS) flight MH370 vanished, the plane’s whereabouts remains a mystery, as does the nagging question – why can’t anyone be held responsible?

Scrutiny of the timeline of events after the Boeing-777 disappeared from radar on March 8, 2014 revealed gaps in communication and a lapse of judgment, in particular by the military, which saw the plane on primary surveillance radar, but did nothing to investigate why it had flown off course.

Malaysian military officials revealed on March 12 that an unidentified aircraft, believed to be MH370, had travelled across the peninsula after doing an air turn-back, and was last sighted on military radar 370km northwest of Penang.

Following this, the search area was then expanded from the Gulf of Thailand and South China Sea to include the Strait of Malacca.

It was reported then that senior military officers only became aware of the radar data after news of the aircraft’s disappearance had spread.

Criticism quickly rolled in after this revelation, from opposition politicians, civil society, the Malaysian public and international media.

“Clearly, they had let an unidentified aircraft pass through Malaysian sovereign territory without bothering to identify it; not something they were happy to admit,” aviation consultant David Learmount had said.

“There was clearly a significant failure of response on behalf of the Malaysian air force. There’s no real way around it and you might imagine heads would roll for that,” Bangkok-based analyst for defence-and-security-intelligence firm IHS-Jane, Anthony Davis was quoted as saying in a report by Time.

Veteran DAP leader Lim Kit Siang had also called for “heads to roll”, demanding that an inquiry be launched to seek accountability in the plane’s disappearance and subsequent response.

Renewing his calls for accountability, the Gelang Patah MP said no one has been brought to book for the grave error that could have saved millions of ringgit and given the families of the 239 on board the closure they need.

“This only highlights the need to hold an inquiry through the setting up of a Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) to look into the incident,” he added.

Lim said then that one of the areas that should be investigated was whether the disappearance of the jet could have been averted if military radar operators had been more vigilant and had acted promptly.

DAP’s Bukit Mertajam MP Steven Sim had also attempted to learn more about the military radar which detected MH370 in Parliament but his queries were rejected as such information was deemed “secret”.

He had also asked if there were any follow-up action on the lack of emergency response in the early hours when the aircraft went missing but was shot down.

Speaking to The Malaysian Insider recently ahead of the first anniversary of MH370’s disappearance, Sim expressed his disappointment in Putrajaya for its lack of concern over the errors that had contributed to the plane’s whereabouts still being a mystery.

“Before Parliament convenes next week, I urge the prime minister to do several things to show his commitment towards truth, justice and closure for MH370.

“He has to answer if there was any audit conducted on the tragedy, especially with regard to the government standard operating procedure, given the reported negligence such as the lack of response after the loss of communication with MH370 and the lack of response after military radar detected a so-called unidentified flying object moments after MH370 went off communication,” Sim said.

He said he had called for a post-mortem report to be tabled in Parliament but this was never done.

Now, a year later, the critics are justified.

In the absence of any admission of wrongdoing or negligence by the Malaysian authorities, the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO) has noted the failure of Malaysia’s military in communicating information about MH370 as it went off course.

In a paper presented in January at the Third Meeting of the Asia/Pacific Regional Search and Rescue Task Force in the Maldives, ICAO said the delay had resulted in the loss of valuable time in the initial search for the plane.

It was some 20 hours before civil aviation authorities were informed and a week before the information that military radar had detected MH370 flying north of Pulau Perak in the Strait of Malacca, was released, the paper noted.

“PSR (primary surveillance radar) information from Malaysian military PSR and the two PSRs in Thailand at Hat Yai (near the Thai-Malaysian border) and Phuket (Bang Duk Hill) that could have observed the west-bound track of MH370 were not provided to civilian authorities during the immediate period following the disappearance,” the paper titled “ICAO brief on the SAR response to MH370” said.

Though the ICAO paper did not mention the need to scramble jets, it noted the lack of cooperation between military and civil aviation authorities.

This point has also been raised by former Royal Malaysian Air Force fighter pilot, Zaidi Ahmad, who told The Malaysian Insider that Malaysia should have learned from the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 to beef up cooperation between the military and civil aviation to deal with airborne threats.

Last year, Malaysian officials drew flak for contradictory and clumsy statements made over the radar fiasco (see graphic).

Royal Malaysian Air Force chief Gen Tan Sri Rodzali Daud initially inadvertently admitted that primary surveillance radar had picked up MH370 over the Strait of Malacca and later denied it, only to have the information be made public later.

In May, Defence Minister and acting Transport Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, defended the military’s inaction, saying, “it was not deemed a hostile object and pointless if you are not going to shoot it down.

“If you’re not going to shoot it down, what’s the point of sending it up?”

No one knows if any action has been taken against any official, although current Transport Minister Datuk Seri Liow Tiong Lai said to wait for an interim investigation report on MH370 that was expected to be released today, one year from the incident, as required by international convention.

Will there be answers later today when the report is released?

The next-of-kin of passengers and crew members on board MH370 have spent this weekend remembering their loved ones with vigils and gatherings, refusing to call them “memorial” events as they hold out hope that those missing might still be alive.

This is despite the January 29 announcement by the Malaysian Department of Civil Aviation, that after 327 days of searching, flight MH370 was lost in an accident and all 239 on board are considered dead.

The ongoing search in a remote part of the southern Indian Ocean, where depths reach 6,000m, has covered more than 40% of the total 60,000 sq km search area.

Search operations, led by Australia, are expected to be completed by May if all goes well.

Authorities have remained sketchy at best in revealing what they plan to do next should the current search yield nothing by then.

Liow has said authorities would need to go back to the drawing board, and Malaysia, as the lead investigator, would rely on experts to help it plan the next move.

Whatever the interim investigation report reveals today, and whether anyone is held to account, the question will still remain: where is the plane? – March 8, 2015.

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