Asian Insider March 11: Kim Jong Nam’s accused killer goes free, and more...

Asian Insider brings you insights into a fast-changing region from our network of correspondents.

Indonesian suspect in Kim Jong Nam murder released

In a shocking twist at the the trial of one of the two women accused of assassinating the half-brother of North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un in 2017, prosecutors dropped the charges against the other suspect. Siti Aisyah, who had been charged alongside Vietnamese Doan Thi Huong, for the brazen killing of Kim Jong Nam at a Kuala Lumpur airport was immediately released. The Vietnamese woman’s case was then adjourned until Thursday after the defence asked the Attorney-General to do for Doan what they just did for Siti Aisyah.

Grounds for dismissal: What were the grounds for dropping charges on Siti Aisyah? Both women have said they thought they were part of a reality TV show when they poisoned Kim with the toxic VX nerve agent. This has been their explanation from the beginning and they have been in jail for two years awaiting trial. A letter from the Malaysian Attorney-General appears to suggest that lobbying from the Indonesian government contributed to the decision to drop charges, saying it was doing so after “taking into account the good relations between our respective countries”.

Why it matters: Before the shock here, the key implication of this case was that it would shine light anew on the brutality of the Kim Jong Un regime and serve as a high-profile reminder of the kind of the leader he is some two years since he embarked on a charm offensive. And while this will still be the case if the trial for Doan goes on, the twist today raises some questions about the Malaysian justice system. After all, what does it mean if only one of two people accused of the same crime, using the same defence is released? And how exactly does the good relations between two countries affect the application of the law? When the case resumes, can Doan expect to be similarly freed?

Go deeper:

Malaysia court frees Indonesian in Kim Jong Nam murder case

Malaysia releases Indonesian suspect in Kim Jong Nam case out of goodwill: Embassy

Ethiopian air crash increases scrutiny on Boeing

On Monday, 157 people were killed when Ethiopian Airlines Flight ET302 crashed in a town 62km south-east of Addis Ababa while en route to Nairobi in Kenya. Almost instantly, people began to notice similarities between the crash and the Lion Air crash in Indonesia in October. Today, a handful  of countries began scrutinising their Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, the plane involved in both crashes. China, for instance, has grounded its entire domestic fleet of 96 B737 Max 8 planes.

The big picture: Air disasters have, in recent years, not followed any kind of pattern. An analysis by The Washington Post of 18 commercial crashes since 2014 shows that there has been no prevalent cause for such disasters nor is there any region seemingly more prone to air crashes.That made the similarities between the Lion Air and Ethiopian Airlines disasters all the more noteworthy. While it is not clear what led to the Ethiopian crash, both involved the same new aircraft, both involved pilots reporting trouble shortly after take-off and both had highly erratic flight tracks moments before going down. The doubts undermine a key aircraft in Boeing’s line-up. The single-aisle plane accounts for almost one-third of Boeing’s operating profit.

The full story:

The crash: Ethiopian Airlines flight crashes, killing 157; plane same model as jet in Lion Air crash

Countries react: Boeing 737 Max 8 grounded in Ethiopia and China, Indonesia conducts extra inspections

India gears up for polls

The world’s largest democracy will hold elections over five weeks starting April 11 and ending on May 19, with the results then coming in from May 23. The country’s election commission announced the dates on Sunday, officially firing the starting gun on the election campaign. At this stage, polls have Prime Minister Narendra Modi as favourite to retain his position.

The big picture: When Mr Modi swept to power in 2014, he did so with the kind of majority many had thought no longer possible in India. The country with thousands of ethnic groups had not seen such electoral dominance for over three decades. And while he remains a popular figure, Mr Modi comes into this polls having to face down a host of challenges. As India Bureau Chief Nirmala Ganapathy reports, unemployment remains a stubborn problem for the Modi government with job creation unable to keep pace with the millions entering the job market every year. Mr Modi’s party also lost elections in three states considered strongholds last year, a reflection of rural discontent with the government. Meanwhile, the entry of Priyanka Gandhi into the fray has energised the main opposition party.

The black swan:  An already complex election dynamic was suddenly complicated further this year when an attack in Kashmir by a Pakistan-based terror group triggered an outbreak of hostilities. Whether the tension is a boon or bane to Mr Modi’s electoral numbers remains to be seen, but this could be the issue that trumps all others.

Go deeper:

The key issues for Modi in the coming elections

Poll shows India's Modi-led coalition could come close to majority

Japan marks 8 years of Fukushima tragedy

Today, Japan marked the eighth anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown that left some 18,500 dead or missing in Fukushima. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined lawmakers and families of victims in a prayer in Tokyo at 2.46pm - the moment the earthquake struck.

Why it matters: The Fukushima disaster had served inadvertently as a warning to a new generation of nuclear sceptics. The ability of Japan to rebuild there thus has significant influence on the willingness of many to accept nuclear power plants in their midst. Japan Correspondent Walter Sim writes that the government has struggled to convince a sceptical public even at home eight years after the disaster. Though authorities are encouraging evacuees to return, only 23 per cent have returned to former hazard zones. Still, Fukushima is trying to take its message of resilience abroad. It is hosting the Rugby World Cup this year and Olympics events in 2020.

The full story:

Toxic rumours' plague Japan, eight years on

And finally, you might be eating a two-year-old airline meal one day

Let’s end today with some breaking news from the wonderful world of airline meal innovation. Sats, the main caterer for Singapore’s Changi Airport said today that its investments in new technology can extend the shelf life of cooked food. That means meals do not have to be discarded after every flight because they can last longer.  Some,  including braised chicken rice, chicken briyani, beef stroganoff, pasta alfredo and black pepper chicken udon can be stored for up to 24 months.

Just think about that. One day, someone on a plane will be happily tucking into a beef stroganoff old enough to require its own seat.

Full story: Ready-to-eat meals that can be kept up to 24 months part of Sats' $25m investment to produce more, reduce waste


Former South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan denied libel charges against him, appearing before a Gwangju court today in a libel trial over his 2017 memoir.

A former British marine arrived in French Guiana early today after a two-month row across the Atlantic, becoming the first physically disabled person to make the solo crossing from mainland Europe to South America and also smashing the able-bodied record, according to his team.

Former prime minister Najib Razak and Umno president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi were both conspicuously absent from the opening of Malaysia's Parliament on Monday (March 11). Najib did not attend because he was at the Court of Appeal for the hearing of applications relating to criminal charges against him.

Tens of thousands of students from more than 80 countries and territories - including the United States, Malaysia and Hong Kong - plan to skip school this Friday to urge adults to treat climate change as a crisis, and for governments to take action now.

That's it from me today, see you tomorrow.