MH370: Still a mystery one year later

MH370: Still a mystery one year later
Mr Bian Liangwei, whose brother was on Flight MH370, claims family members have no human rights and are subjected to the Chinese government’s control. There is speculation of a “political conspiracy”.

HOPE can sustain the grieving, but does it also cause more pain?

Almost a year after Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 vanished en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, family members of the 239 passengers and crew members are clinging on to a sliver of hope that, with no debris found so far, their loved ones could still be alive.

This possibility has sustained some of them, especially the elderly.

But as the world moves along hurriedly, the lives of many others have shuddered to an abrupt halt, the burden of not knowing what happened to their loved ones haunting - and torturing - them.

The inability to attain closure has left many in a destructive limbo.

Some have had to seek psychiatric help for depression and anxiety, while others have put their lives on hold, impulsively leaving behind jobs and family and moving to squalid living quarters in Beijing to await news.

"If we never find out the truth, this pain will be with us for the rest of our lives," Mr Bian Liangwei, 27, told The Straits Times.

His older brother was one of the 153 Chinese citizens on board the plane that went missing on March 8 last year.

The 38 Malaysians on the flight comprised the second-largest group among the 14 nationalities.

At least four times a month, the Hebei native makes a six-hour journey to a temporary contact centre set up by MAS near the Beijing airport, demanding the "truth" from the airline.

Even today, family members remain highly suspicious of the Malaysian government's handling of the search and have been incensed by what they say is MAS' callous attitude towards them.

For instance, Malaysia's declaration in January that the disappearance of MH370 was an accident and that all aboard the plane are presumed dead sparked fury among family members.

About 30 Chinese family members flew to Kuala Lumpur last month in protest, calling for the declaration to be made void as there is no evidence of the plane having crashed since no debris has been found.

Many are convinced that the plane was hijacked and passengers are possibly marooned on a deserted island with no contact with the outside world.

Their hopes hinge partly on the fact that passengers' cellphones continued ringing days after the flight went missing.

They believe it was a sign that the plane did not crash into the ocean.

Their obsession with the phones even prompted telecommunications firm China Mobile to send staff to a recent briefing to answer family members' technical questions about what might have caused the phenomenon.

According to Mr Jiang Hui, 41, a representative of Chinese family members, it is the frequently conflicting information from Malaysia and the government's inability to be forthcoming that have fuelled conspiracy theories.

Mr Jiang's mother, Madam Jiang Cuiyun, 71, was on the ill-fated flight.

Similarly, Kuala Lumpur-based American teacher Sarah Bajc, 48, whose boyfriend, Mr Philip Wood, was on the flight, has found it difficult to accept the declaration without evidence.

The chances of her partner being alive might be tiny but there has been "absolutely no proof to support the official theory", she said.

She told The Straits Times there are a lot of scenarios where there are survivors "that are impossible to rule out at this point".

"I'm just not going to accept a story that's been told to me without any proof," she said.

Apart from the annoyance with Malaysia, there has also been a rising tide of anger among Chinese next-of-kin against Beijing.

Chinese family members say their government has given them little help and has sided with Malaysia on multiple occasions, even using strong-arm tactics to oppress them.

This has given rise to speculation that Beijing might also be involved in a "political conspiracy".

A Mr Li, who did not want to give his full name and whose daughter was on the flight, said hundreds of policemen were called in when family members tried to march to the Malaysian Embassy in protest in January.

"Some of the policemen hit me with their batons and broke my cellphone," he said. "They have no morals and no sympathy."

Mr Bian said: "Family members have no human rights.

We are subjected to the government's heavy-handedness and control.

They keep pressuring us to accept MAS' compensation."

But while grief has been debilitating for some, others are slowly picking up the pieces, accepting the initial compensation of US$50,000 (S$68,000) that MAS had offered and making plans to soldier on alone.

At the end of last year, relatives of only 35 passengers had accepted the payment despite assurances that the money will not affect future claims.

Some have kept a low profile for fear of being branded as traitors who have given up the search for their loved ones by other emotionally charged relatives.

"It is not that I don't want my parents back but I think it will take years before we find out the truth of what really happened," one such Chinese family member said, declining to be named due to the sensitivities of the matter.

His parents were on the flight.

"I am more rational... There is no use being angry with MAS because it is the first time something like this has happened.

Family members also need to be realistic and discuss the compensation issue before time runs out," the 25-year-old student added.

He was referring to a two-year deadline from the time the plane went missing for family members to file lawsuits against MAS and the Malaysian government for further compensation, according to the Montreal Convention.

Under the 1999 accord, the minimum compensation per passenger is about US$175,000 although families can choose to sue for more.

MAS crisis director Fuad Sharuji has said the compensation would be more than the amount set in the accord, if the next-of-kin can show the victim was "earning a high income, still young and should get more".

Others have also taken constructive steps to rebuild their lives as best as they can.

According to Chinese media reports, Madam Zhang Meiling, 65, whose daughter and son-in-law were on the flight, has started learning English in a bid to communicate with her two grandsons.

The boys, who previously lived in Beijing with their parents, have been cared for by their paternal grandparents in Britain since May last year.

Barely a month after moving there, they stopped speaking in Mandarin, Madam Zhang said in a Vista Magazine article.

"Sometimes I am tongue-tied during our weekly video chats... I have only two concerns now: For my daughter and her husband to come home, and to pick up English as quickly as possible so I can talk to my grandchildren."

Madam Zhang recently forked out almost 15,000 yuan (S$3,300) for 50 intensive one-to-one English lessons - her determination and love for her grandsons making sure that at least one of her hopes might be fulfilled.

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