Neighborliness enshrined in MH370 tragedy
Norshahril Saat ; The writer is studying for his PhD at the Department of Political and Social Change, and Strategic Studies, College of Asia and the Pacific, at the Australian National University, Canberra, Australia;
His research focus is Southeast Asian politics
JAKARTA POST, 15 Maret 2014
While the factors that led to the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight MH370 continue to remain a mystery, the ongoing search and rescue efforts by countries in the South China Sea show several positive signs: That territorial and political disputes, as well as religious and cultural differences, can be set aside to search for answers to a common crisis.
The flight carrying 239 people on board was on its way to Beijing from Kuala Lumpur on March 8 when it lost contact with air traffic controllers. On board were mostly Chinese citizens — in all 153. There were also 38 Malaysians, six Australians and seven Indonesians. So far, leaders and citizens from Malaysia’s neighboring countries have been actively involved not only in the search and rescue operations but also in gathering intelligence, offering social and psychological help to the families of the affected passengers and organizing multi-faith services.
Since the news of the tragedy broke last week, the ongoing territorial disputes in the South China Sea appear to have taken a back seat. Currently, China, Malaysia and Vietnam — the countries directly involved in efforts to recover the missing plane — are in disagreement over the sovereignty of, among others, the oil and gas rich Spratly Islands and the Paracel Islands.
Underlying these territorial disputes are also strategic and economic concerns as these islands are located on important shipping lanes. In January this year, a military exercise conducted by the Chinese navy close to James Shoal, a reef located just outside Malaysia’s territorial waters but within 200 nautical miles of its exclusive economic zone, raised concerns in some Southeast Asian countries over Chinese strategic intent in the region. To be sure, such exercises serve as an opportunity for states to demonstrate their most sophisticated weaponry and military technology to the neighboring countries.
However, in the aftermath of the MH370 tragedy, these warships and military vessels serve a different purpose: To facilitate the recovery of the missing plane China has mobilized at least four warships for the search and rescue operation. Other countries that have offered help are Australia, Japan, New Zealand, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. The US dispatched two warships to help. Since the speculation that the plane attempted to change course and detour back to Kuala Lumpur, search operations have been expanded to the Malacca Strait and Andaman Sea.
Although there were no Singaporeans aboard the plane, the Singapore government offered to help the rescue mission. During these search operations, participating navies cross one another’s territorial waters. Crisscrossing one another’s territory during humanitarian crises is not unprecedented. Remember the rescue efforts during Aceh’s tsunami crisis in 2004, as well as Typhoon Haiyan that befell the Philippines last year.
The neighborly spirit has also extended to “soft” security aspects of intelligence gathering and information sharing, which is mainly to uncover any possible terrorist plots or criminal activities that may have resulted in the plane going missing. The instantaneous expressions of concern, particularly by Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, and Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono to their Malaysian counterpart, Najib Razak, bear testimony to this good spirit.
Apart from these leaders offering assistance to the search and rescue operations, this neighborliness is also expressed by ordinary citizens through the organizing of multireligious and multicultural prayers for the passengers. These sessions are conducted alongside the many well wishes for the victims expressed on the Malaysia Airlines Facebook page.
What is more encouraging is that participants of these joint prayers come from different faiths. Malaysia, which has been embroiled in interreligious tensions for the last five years, also witnessed individuals from different faiths pray for the passengers. The New Straits Times reported that 32 polytechnics in Malaysia offered prayers for the aircraft’s recovery. Volunteer rescue workers and religious organizations also carried out interfaith prayers at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport on March 9.
This has indeed been a testing time for the passengers’ families. Nevertheless, the outpouring of condolences from leaders and citizens from Malaysia’s neighbors has been encouraging. The multi-country efforts to recover the plane have demonstrated how in times of crisis, a neighborly spirit replaces ideological, political and territorial differences. ●