Campaign by relatives of victims to solve mystery of MH370

A woman scrawls a message on a dedication board for the victims of MAS MH370 and MH17 in Subang Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur. MH370 disappeared on March 8 with 239 people en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A woman scrawls a message on a dedication board for the victims of MAS MH370 and MH17 in Subang Jaya, near Kuala Lumpur. MH370 disappeared on March 8 with 239 people en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Relatives of victims form group to share information, lobby for action

KUALA LUMPUR - Chinese physics student Jimmy Wang had no interest in aviation until March 8, when Malaysia Airlines (MAS) Flight MH370 went missing with his 58-year-old father Wang Lijun on board.

Mr Wang, 31, now spends evenings in central China combing through aviation blogs for Boeing 777 technical specifications, exchanging what he finds with fellow MH370 next of kin.

He is one of hundreds of relatives who - desperate to learn the fate of their loved ones - are channelling their grief in a cross-border, social-media-enabled but so far frustrating citizen campaign to solve aviation's greatest mystery.

The Malaysian and Australian governments are set to sign a memorandum of understanding this week to strengthen their joint search for MH370.

But Mr Wang, who abandoned graduate studies in Sweden to be with his grieving mother, said "Malaysia Airlines and others are not doing their jobs".

"(This is why) we have to organise," he added in an interview via Skype from his home in the city of Anyang. "I cannot live the rest of my life with questions."

Through Chinese micro-blogging site Weibo (153 Chinese nationals were on board MH370), a closed Facebook group and Skype "meetings" of up to dozens of people, participants exchange findings and discuss the latest theories and proposals for action.

The group, calling itself Voice370 with some 300 members, receives and debates advice from aviation, legal and other experts, while similar groups formed after previous disasters such as the 2009 Air France crash offer support.

While some face-to-face meetings have been held, most exchanges are conducted via webcam or extensive e-mail strings, with members voting on strategies for pushing MAS and governments involved in a still-fruitless search for more information.

"It's really quite a community," said Ms Sarah Bajc, an American whose life partner Philip Wood was on the flight. "I feel compelled to do everything in my power to find Philip. We owe it to them."

MH370 disappeared on March 8 with 239 people en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. No trace has been found despite an extensive, Australian-led search in the southern Indian Ocean.

Some next of kin have sharply accused the airline and Malaysian authorities of a bungled response - its military tracked MH370 on radar after it mysteriously diverted, but did nothing - and withholding data from the public. Yet despite their efforts, families have seen only modest success.

In an open letter to the authorities in Malaysia, Australia and China in May, a skeptical Voice370 demanded to see satellite and other data that Malaysia said indicates MH370 went down in the Indian Ocean. The information was eventually released but shed little light on what happened.

In June, several families, including Ms Bajc, launched a drive to raise US$5 million (S$6.2 million) for any whistle-blower with information on the jet's fate. Only US$100,500 has been raised.

"You get tired, and part of you wants to put it behind and say 'That's where it all ends', and part of you says, 'You can't rest until you figure things out'," said Mr K.S. Narendran, 50, a soft-spoken Indian business consultant, whose wife Chandrika Sharma was on MH370.

The airline and Malaysian government deny charges of a cover-up and insist they will leave no stone unturned. In a statement yesterday, Malaysian Transport Minister Liow Tiong Lai assured the public that the search for MH370 remained a "top priority" despite the demands of another aviation disaster involving MAS - the July 17 downing of MH17 over war-torn eastern Ukraine.

Ms Bajc said MH17 underlines the importance of Voice370, particularly the need to highlight "critical flaws" in global aviation and police "incompetent" airlines and authorities that endanger passengers.

But she and others admit resignation is setting in. Ms Bajc no longer joins the video meetings, as she and others look increasingly for other ways to pressure the authorities, such as mulling possible lawsuits against the airline or Boeing to reveal more.

No significant lawsuits have been filed yet. Some families, however, say they are sifting through the complexities of where and how best to file a case in such an unprecedented disaster.

"It's my father. I'm his only son. No matter what happened, we need to bring them back," Mr Wang said. "I think if I don't do this, I will feel guilty."

AGENCE-FRANCE PRESSE