KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Malaysia welcomed a pair of pandas from China on Wednesday, after a month’s delay caused by tensions over the Malaysian airliner which disappeared in March with mostly Chinese passengers aboard.
The eight-year-old pandas – female Feng Yi (“Phoenix”) and male Fu Wa (“Lucky”) – arrived in Kuala Lumpur to an honour guard of water cannon, after taking a red-eye flight from Chengdu in southwestern China where they were bred. Their "in-flight meals" consisted of bamboos, bamboo shoots, apples, carrots and steamed dumplings, reported The Star Online.
Feng Yi was briefly shown to the media before being whisked off to the national zoo with her prospective mate. She initially retreated into her cage when exposed to daylight and the clatter of camera shutters, before gaining courage and curiously peering between the bars.
At a press conference before the pandas' arrival, China's Ambassador to Malaysia Huang Huikang said he hoped "the arrival of these two precious icons contribute towards the everlasting friendship and sustainable cooperation between Malaysia and the People's Republic of China", reported The Star Online.
Commenting on the two-hour flight delay, Dr Huang quipped: "The delay is because the pandas want to see KL clearly in daylight. They don't want their 10-year stay in KL to begin in the dark."
China and Malaysia agreed in 2012 that China would send the giant pandas for a 10-year stay, in Beijing’s latest use of “panda diplomacy”.
The pair were due to arrive on April 16 but Malaysia's environment minister Palanivel Govindasamy said at the time before dispatching them, Beijing was awaiting further details on flight MH370, which vanished on March 8 with 239 people including 153 Chinese on board.
The airline and Malaysia’s government have come under withering public criticism in China over the loss, and the failure to find the plane that was en route from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing. The Boeing 777 jet is believed to have have veered far off course for reasons unknown, before crashing into the remote Indian Ocean, where efforts are under way to locate its flight data recorders on the seabed.
Chinese relatives of the missing passengers have accused the Malaysian flag carrier and authorities of bungling the response to the plane’s disappearance and withholding information.
In the aftermath of the tragedy, Chinese authorities allowed relatives to stage a rare public protest at Malaysia’s embassy in Beijing, suggesting official support for the criticism.
Malaysia’s image in China took a further blow in April, when a Chinese tourist was kidnapped in an eastern state by gunmen believed to be Islamic militants from the southern Philippines. Malaysia has said ransom negotiations are under way.
China is Malaysia’s largest trading partner and Kuala Lumpur has been courting closer ties with Beijing, declaring 2014 as “China-Malaysia Friendship Year” to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic relations.
The pandas have already caused controversy in Malaysia over plans to house them in special US$7.7 million facility at the national zoo in Kuala Lumpur. Environmentalists have said the money would have been better spent on conservation efforts for threatened Malaysian wildlife.
Mr Palanivel said the panda pair would be given time to acclimatise before being shown to the public from the end of June.