Families cling to hope amid MH370 search

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IOL pic mar26 malaysian plane families upset presser

Reuters

Steven Wang, a family member of a passenger aboard Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370, stands with other family members as he reads a statement to journalists outside the Lido hotel in Beijing on March 26, 2014. Picture: Kim Kyung-Hoon

Beijing -

The fury, disbelief and even accusations of murder that have erupted from Chinese relatives over the loss of MH370 are driven by factors including the painfully long search and ingrained mistrust of officialdom in the Communist state, experts say.

Scores of emotional family members descended on Malaysia's embassy in Beijing on Tuesday, linking arms and denouncing Kuala Lumpur after Prime Minister Najib Razak said satellite data showed the flight had gone down in the southern Indian Ocean.

Some family members continue to cling to conspiracy theories about the plane's whereabouts, despite the lack of evidence to back up the wild claims.

“The Malaysian government, Malaysia Airlines and the Malaysian armed forces are the real murderers who have killed our loved ones,” one of the relatives, apparently reading from a statement, said after Najib's announcement.

A man surnamed Wang, whose 57-year-old mother was on the plane, told AFP he thought “it might be hijacking for political reasons”.

It is a notable contrast with the reaction in Malaysia, a predominantly Muslim country where many have accepted the tragedy with quiet grief and resignation.

What sets Flight MH370 apart from other disasters, experts say, is the unique set of circumstances surrounding the plane's disappearance and the protracted search, now in its third week.

The jet disappeared on March 8 with 239 people on board after taking off from Kuala Lumpur bound for Beijing.

Nearly two-thirds of the passengers were from China. Compounding the heartbreak is that as a result of the country's one-child policy, many of those lost were only children.

China was swift to criticise Kuala Lumpur's handling of the crisis soon after the plane disappeared, and state-run media has run a series of scathing editorials calling for more effort and transparency.

And in a country where authorities keep a tight rein on protests, Tuesday's rowdy demonstration was permitted to proceed and police blocked traffic to allow the marchers through.

The most fundamental stumbling block towards acceptance is the lack so far of physical evidence showing that the Boeing 777 indeed plunged into the southern Indian Ocean, or any passengers' remains.

“Remember that after 9/11, they actually spent a lot of time finding the DNA of the human remains in order to confirm who was on the death list,” said Amy Chow, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong.

“So I do think the first thing is, they still have a certain sense of hope; they cannot rationally think the person has passed away.”

Families' hopes were also repeatedly raised and dashed during the agonising search, which began in the South China Sea where the jet lost contact, and then swung across a vast arc of the globe before focusing on the Indian Ocean.

“They have been waiting, and there has been a rollercoaster of information,” Chow said. “I think it's more traumatic because they have hope, but then the hope disappears. They are having a fluctuation in expectations, so it makes them very tired.”

Soon after the aircraft's disappearance, Chinese family members were given the option to travel to Kuala Lumpur to be closer to the search operations.

But most opted to stay in Beijing, where every day for the past 18 days they have gathered in the ballroom of a hotel to receive updates from officials - and learn of repeated contradictions and mis-steps by Malaysian authorities.

The set-up has allowed conspiracy theories and resentments to breed, said Joyce Lai-chong Ma, a social work expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

“The anger can be multiplied,” she said, noting that in the absence of any firm evidence, “family members will try to reinforce one another about their sense of denial”.

Some have accused Malaysian officials of orchestrating an elaborate cover-up.

They maintained their loved ones were victims of domestic political struggles and that Flight MH370 had been hijacked by supporters of the Malaysian opposition, who were holding the passengers hostage at a secret location.

“We want our relatives back,” one said last week. “We don't want our relatives to be sacrificed to a political fight.”

The response is tied to a natural distrust of official information in China, where ruling Communist Party authorities are quick to cover up aspects of domestic disasters that could reflect poorly on the state.

“Of course, in general, Chinese trust of government is not so high, because of the past miserable experiences - the Cultural Revolution, all these political movements one after the other,” Ma said.

“They may project their distrust... of the Chinese government onto the Malaysian government,” she added.

Eventually, though, anger will be replaced by grief for most, regardless of their nationality, said Robert Neimeyer, professor of psychology at the University of Memphis and the editor of journal Death Studies.

“In this basic sense, we as humans are more alike than different,” he said. - Sapa-AFP


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