KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's deal with pro-Russian rebels on MH17 caps an official response to the disaster that is being hailed at home as a swift and clear counterpoint to the government's widely mocked reaction to the disappearance of MH370.
The leadership of Prime Minister Najib Razak has been put to the test again by yet another tragic and complex air disaster just four months after the still-unexplained disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370 rocked his country. But in stark contrast to the handling of MH370, Najib and his government have responded quickly and coherently to the tragic downing of MH17 over eastern Ukraine with 298 people aboard by a suspected missile fired by pro-Russian separatist rebels.
Within an hour after state-controlled Malaysia Airlines confirmed the flight was missing, Najib called for an immediate investigation and began working the phones with world leaders including Russia's Vladimir Putin. He also dispatched top officials to press for access to the rebel-held Ukraine crash site, and demanded justice for those responsible.
"MH370 was a much more complicated situation... but regardless, the leadership has moved with much more confidence (on MH17)," said Ibrahim Suffian, head of Merdeka Center, Malaysia's top polling organisation. "They have been able to achieve some concrete outcomes and I think at least in Malaysia that is already being portrayed very positively."
Following mounting global pressure for access to the rebel-held crash site and protection of key evidence, Najib early Tuesday announced a deal with a top rebel leader in eastern Ukraine. Remains of victims are to be handed over to the Netherlands -- which had 192 people aboard -- and the plane's black box given to Malaysia. In MH370, Najib, 60, was criticised by many at home for staying largely on the sidelines as the drama unfolded.
Appearing like deer in the headlights, underlings were left to face world outrage over the crisis, often feeding the response with a chaotic and contradictory message. For many Malaysians, the episode was symptomatic of a corruption-plagued ethnic-Malay-dominated regime unaccustomed to having to answer for itself. Najib's Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition has held an iron grip on power since independence in 1957 but is rapidly losing support to a multi-racial opposition, which pounced on MH370's miscues.
But Najib's more proactive approach on MH17 -- which had 44 Malaysians among its dead -- and the successful breakthrough have won him praise. "There are still so many things wrong with this government and Malaysia Airlines is a mess, but they seem to have handled this much better. It may help make people forget about all the problems in MH370," said Kevin Silva, a Malaysian schoolteacher.
Najib's Facebook page and Twitter feeds had filled with supportive comments even before the deal, and plaudits have come even from bitter domestic political foes. Lim Kit Siang, a top opposition figure and frequent harsh critic of Najib, said the premier should be "commended" on the MH17 deal. "Malaysians must remain united as one people on the MH17 disaster, continuing to give full backing to the Prime Minister... and the government, as they press for justice," Lim said in a statement.
A longtime member of the non-aligned movement, Malaysia has minimal trade with Russia or other leverage. Najib faced some criticism for pulling his punches on MH17 despite world outrage as rebels restricted access to the crash and carted away key evidence, raising fears of a cover-up. While leaders such as US President Barack Obama and British premier David Cameron laid ultimate blame for the tragedy on Russian support for the rebels, Najib refused to name names.
Najib explained that approach in his televised address early Tuesday. "In recent days, there were times I wanted to give greater voice to the anger and grief that the Malaysian people feel. And that I feel," he said. "But sometimes, we must work quietly in the service of a better outcome."