How Najib brokered deal for black boxes
AS WESTERN leaders increasingly point the finger of blame at pro-Russian separatists and Moscow itself over the shooting down of a Malaysia Airlines plane in eastern Ukraine, the government in Kuala Lumpur said little.
The reasons for that reticence - which had drawn criticism at home - became clear yesterday, when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced shortly after midnight that his government had negotiated the release of the remains of nearly 300 victims of Flight MH17 from separatist-held territory.
Mr Najib, working through intermediaries to reach rebel leader Alexander Borodai, was a key figure in brokering the deal, according to two sources in Malaysia with direct knowledge of the negotiations.
The talks were kept under tight wraps, with Mr Najib bringing only a handful of his closest confidants into the discussions.
"The conversation was not initiated by Malaysia, but it was the Prime Minister's project," one of the sources said. "He was the main player and he kept this within a very, very, very tight circle. Even some of his closest advisers were not part of this circle, and were surprised by this deal."
The agreement was that Malaysia would receive the aircraft's "black box" voice and flight data recorders, which were in rebel hands after being recovered from the crash site near the Russian border.
The bodies would be moved from separatist-controlled territory so that international investigators could safely conduct DNA tests and later return the remains to families.
Intermediaries, whom the sources declined to identify, facilitated at least one telephone discussion between Mr Najib and Mr Borodai, via a translator, the sources said.
Malaysia wanted three things from the separatists: return the bodies, hand over the black boxes and assure safe access for investigators to the crash site.
Mr Borodai's people wanted a signed document acknowledging that the black boxes were not tampered with, the second source said.
They also insisted on handing over the black boxes to the Malaysians because they did not want the devices in the hands of the Ukrainian government.
A broad agreement took shape on Monday, and Mr Najib broke his silence, telling a small group of officials that a deal had been struck, the first source said.
The public announcement came just after midnight. By morning in Malaysia yesterday, the black boxes were in Malaysian possession and a train carrying the bodies was heading out of separatist-controlled territory.
Including the 15 crew members, 43 Malaysians were killed on the plane. At home, anger was building over the poor treatment of the victims' remains.
But Mr Najib waited.
"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," Mr Najib said when he finally broke his silence yesterday. "But sometimes, we must work quietly in the service of a better outcome."
"It helps, definitely, that Malaysia is seen as a non-party to the ongoing conflict on the ground," said Alan Chong, associate professor at the Rajaratnam School of International Studies.