The families of the 239 passengers and crew on the missing Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 have been shoddily treated. Malaysian authorities have been poor communicators, giving conflicting information that has only led to confusion. Other governments have put national security ahead of helping the investigation, leading to a lack of data and co-ordination that has only furthered the frustration. Never before has a plane disappeared in such mysterious circumstances, but that is no excuse for self-interest and heartlessness.
An effective search strategy requires governments and their agencies, the airline, the aircraft manufacturer and foreign entities working together. The manner in which events have unfolded makes it clear that Malaysia's military has been keeping information from authorities. Data collected by other militaries from satellite and radar has been anonymously released or not shared. Had the response been more capably handled, wasted time and effort could have been avoided. Valuable resources could have been better deployed.
Militaries have been unwilling to hand over information out of fear that by doing so they would be letting rivals know about their technological capabilities. Finding the plane and its passengers has appeared of secondary consideration. Relatives and the media want answers, but the silence, delays and false leads has led only to speculation and guesswork. The focus has shifted with each new piece of information, the search having been widened from the South China Sea to the Strait of Malacca and the Indian Ocean, and northwest as far as Turkmenistan, a vast area that now involves 26 governments.
International rules require the country to which a missing aircraft is registered to be in charge of the investigation. But the Malaysian government has insufficient capabilities, technologies and experience to properly deal with so extraordinary an incident. The confusing daily briefings have led to a lack of faith in the country's ability to lead.
Given Malaysia's struggles, perhaps it is time for a rethink. The world should consider a properly managed, independent organisation to take charge of co-ordination of challenging searches and investigations. In the meantime, the co-operation and information-sharing that should have been taking place from the start with flight MH370 has to begin in earnest. Finding out what befell the plane and the people on board has to finally take precedence over national interests.