In this week’s Dateline Irrawaddy, panelists discussed the downing of a Malaysia Airlines jet over Ukraine on July 17.
Aung Zaw: This week, we’ll discuss Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, which was destroyed by a missile near the Russian and Ukrainian border. I’m Aung Zaw, editor of The Irrawaddy Magazine, and Irrawaddy reporters Yan Paing and Lin Thant will join me to discuss this tragic event. MH17 was hit at 33,000 feet by a missile. According to a report from The New York Times, some witnesses saw passengers falling down from the sky in the crash. Western governments have been talking about the case and especially US President Obama has talked about it twice. They said that pro-Russian separatists shot down the plane. The Buk system, which is a radar-guided system, can shoot down a plane flying at an altitude of over 30,000 feet. Flight 17 was shot down with the Buk system. In the past, there have been cases of choppers and military aircraft being shot down over that area. So, there have been questions that whether the attack is deliberate or accidental. As the relations between US and Russia have soured over the former’s occupation of Ukrainian territory and the US is imposing sanctions, there is speculation that there is going to be a war. Lin Thant, would you tell us about the plane crash?
Ko Lin Thant: Flight 17 was hit at 33,000 feet en route from Amsterdam in the Netherlands to Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpur on July 17. There were a total of 298 passengers and crew on board. Most of the passengers are from the Netherlands. Malaysians were also among the passengers. One thing to point out is the plane was carrying a number of AIDS researchers that were going to attend an ongoing HIV/AIDS conference in Australia. It was flying at an altitude of more than 30,000 feet. According to weapon specialists including from US, the plane was hit by Buk system antiaircraft missile produced during the Soviet Union era. The crash was an awful tragedy not only for the family members of the victims but also for entire international community, sparking serious criticism from international leaders. Most experts concluded that the plane was shot down by pro-Russian separatists. US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power harshly judged that the attack was not possible without the help of Russian experts, directly accusing Russia of involvement in the attack. There are also criticisms from other governments.
AZ: As far as I know, there were many delays in the investigation of the crime scene by independent experts and the Malaysian government, which owns the airline. There were delays in searching for the bodies, black boxes and other evidence. There are allegations and concerns that evidence might have been tampered with. What do you think of it, Yan Paing?
Yan Paing: The plane was shot down at the Russian and Ukrainian border held by pro-Russia separatist militants. Since it was the rebel-held region, there is no security there. [The Malaysian government] had to negotiate with rebel leaders to go into the area to recover the bodies. The Malaysian government also wanted to get the black boxes. Last night, the Malaysian prime minister talked to the rebel leaders on the phone. I heard that rebel leaders then agreed to hand over the black boxes. Again, it was extremely sad to see the images of people recovering the bodies among masked gunmen. That place was just terrifying.
AZ: What is more saddening is the family members of victims have not yet got back the bodies for funerals.
YP: Family members of Dutch victims are taking actions to take the bodies back to Netherlands. 272 bodies were recovered and some of them were incomplete.
LT: News reports said that Ukrainian separatist rebels moved the bodies to destroy evidence. It is said that they moved the bodies to carriages at a train station, some miles away from the crash site.
YP: The separatist rebels even fired warning shots to reporters and security teams from European countries. We also find that they are attempting in many ways to destroy the evidence.
AZ: World-famous newspaper The New York Times reported that weapons experts are sure that the MH17 was hit by the Buk system missile. Weapons experts cited pictures to strengthen their conclusion. One of them shows the part of airplane was hit by a missile. It is undeniable. But then it is again said that it was Russia that supplied such deadly weapons to the separatists who used them to shoot down airplanes in the past. So there has emerged a question—whether the Buk system has already been deployed in Ukrainian territory a long time ago or was deployed just a few days before the crash. This weapons system needs to be carried on a truck. Burma also has missiles—middle-range missile I think—which I have seen during the military parade on Armed Forces Day. The Buk missile system is that kind of thing, but bigger. US weapons experts and intelligence agencies are investigating whether the weapons system was deployed in Ukrainian territory just a few days ago.
YP: Some news reports say that since a week ago, vehicle convoys from Russia were seen crossing the border into Ukrainian territory. Some suggested that the Buk missile system was carried with those convoys. It is now also said those convoys went back to Russia. Some suggested they went back to hide the evidence after the attack.
LT: President Obama in his speech made it clear that he has strong evidence that the plane was shot down by Ukrainian separatist militants trained and equipped by Russia. US remarks have been quite blunt in this regard.
AZ: The phone conversations of separatists were intercepted, and some voices said “we shot down a passenger plane by mistake.” Separatists that use social media posted “we shot down a plane,” but then deleted the post after they knew that it was a passenger plane. First of all, I see the blame game after the plane crash. Some said that it may be Ukrainian army or government that shot down the plane. Meanwhile, Putin was strangely silent. He then issued a statement as the plane crash triggered international criticism and anger. He didn’t say clearly in his statement what actions he would take as regards the plane crash. After he issued the statement, Russian top military officers suggested that the attack might also be launched by Ukraine side. However, inevitably, the blame has fallen on Putin and Western governments, including the US, have been putting pressure on him. At the same time, Foreign Policy magazine assessed that the days of pro-Russia separatists are numbered now as they have make a very serious mistake.
LT: There was a big change in the global political landscape after 9/11. The plane crash has also caused a change in the global political landscape now. US Senate Intelligence Committee Chairperson Dianne Feinstein even said after the plane crash that Cold War has been revived between US and Russia.
AZ: Feinstein is the chairwoman of US Senate Intelligence Committee. When asked if she thinks the world is going back to Cold War period, she said only word “Yes.” But before this, she challenged Putin. She told him to be a man and confess his mistake, and that it was a wrong that should never be committed again.
YP: There can be a cold war because Russia and Ukraine used to have close ties in the past. There are lots of Russian factories in east Ukraine. Then, Ukraine gained independence and is getting closer to the EU these days, which may incur the displeasure of Russia. So, it is sure that there is going to be a Cold War. Russia is even helping a country like Syria. So, it is not that strange if it backs Ukrainian separatists.
AZ: The last point we need to discuss is concerned with the EU. The Obama administration has begun imposing sanctions against Russia after the plane crash and is likely to impose tougher sanctions. Meanwhile, some EU countries have to rely mainly on Russia for their energy security and are also trade partners of Russia. So there arises a question—to what extent will those countries involve in putting pressure on Russia? This is the main point, I think.
YP: European countries will run into trouble if Russia cuts its gas supplies to them. That’s why they have been silent, I think.
AZ: If these developments would lead the world into a Cold War period again, this may increase proxy wars and intensify the regional instability, I reckon. We’ll conclude our discussion there.