On 24 March, 16 days after a Malaysian Airlines jet vanished enroute to Beijing, the Malaysian government declared the mystery solved — to outrage from relatives of the 239 passengers on board the Boeing 777. Late in the evening, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak summoned the international media camped for weeks in Kuala Lumpur and cited “new data” to claim that flight MH370 had “ended in the southern Indian Ocean”. The next day, major Malaysian newspapers like The Star and The New Straits Times dutifully printed blackened front pages to mourn the loss.
China forcefully questioned the basis for these claims. The same evening, Malaysia’s Ambassador to China was asked to provide “detailed evidence” behind the conclusion. A senior Chinese foreign ministry official admonished Malaysia not to stop “search and rescue” efforts. The next day, relatives of the 154 Chinese nationals on board the missing aircraft, marched to the Malaysian embassy, waving placards and chanting slogans against Malaysian “mishandling’ and “cover-up”. The Malaysian prime minister’s dramatic announcement could not have been worse-timed. Search planes scouring the southern Indian Ocean for the past few days have reported sighting debris, including “pallets with belts” of a type that the plane carried. Though vessels in the vicinity have been unable to locate the debris so far, expectations have steadily risen. It only seemed a matter of time.
As the numerous experts on television channels worldwide have repeatedly observed, locating the debris and identifying it as belonging to MH370 would only be the first steps in solving the mystery. From that point, oceanographers would have to factor in current speeds to calculate how far the debris may have drifted to guess at the plane’s “point of impact” in the sea. Only then would the search for the black box begin.
Or so ran the script of this live whodunit, whose breathless coverage has topped television ratings everywhere. It has fuelled speculation of hijackings, pilot suicide and disappearance in the time-space continuum inside a black hole. CNN’s coverage, which has salvaged its sagging fortunes in the US, beat runaway leader Fox News for the first time ever last week. Its host Don Lemon raised the possibility of something “supernatural” happening to the plane. “Is it preposterous to consider a black hole was involved?” Lemon asked a former US aviation safety official. “A small black hole would suck in our entire universe, so we know it’s not that,” she replied.
Worse, Malaysia’s conclusion was not based on any new information, only a new analysis of it by a UK company, whose satellite data had provided the first leads into what happened to the plane after it lost contact with ground staff. “Based on their new analysis…. (they) concluded that MH370 flew along the southern corridor, and that its last position was in the middle of the Indian Ocean, west of Perth,” the Malaysian PM said. He mainly noted the “remote location, far from any possible landing sites” as being the factors behind the conclusion that the plane had crashed.
It is hard to know what prompted this sudden announcement just when it seemed likely that debris would be recovered as soon as stormy weather in the search area off Perth improved. But criticism of Malaysia’s crisis-handling must have rankled Kuala Lumpur, especially in the early days. And then there has been wide unhappiness within China over Kuala Lumpur’s mishandling.
A few days ago, there was a very public protest by a few relatives of the missing passengers at the daily evening briefing in the Malaysian capital. The protest ended, even before it began, when the screaming relatives were bodily removed in front of the international press. Maybe the Malaysian PM’s press conference was a reflexive attempt to put the lid on a humiliating narrative by a paternalistic government not used to being questioned. Or an attempt to be seen as being in charge of the situation.
Whatever the reason, the anti-climactic ending to the mystery of the “ghost plane”, as MH370 has been called, could not have been appreciated by newshounds and theorists worldwide.