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Praise for Najib's 'quiet diplomacy' on MH17

Praise for Najib's 'quiet diplomacy' on MH17
Published 25 Jul 2014   Follow @elliotbrennan

As Malaysia prepares to celebrate Hari Raya Adilfitri this weekend (the end of Ramadan), the country remains in mourning. Yet a week on from the MH17 downing, it appears that embattled Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's (pictured) response to the tragedy is proving popular.

This week, Prime Minister Najib urged Malaysians to say al-fatihah (a prayer for God's guidance) as he condemned the downing of MH17, saying it was a test from Allah during Ramadan. The bodies of the 43 Malaysian victims are yet to be returned to Malaysia for the quick burial demanded under Muslim custom. 

Najib, whose step-grandmother was on MH17, has been front and centre on the international stage. At home he was praised for his 'quiet diplomacy' with pro-Russian separatist leader Alexander Borodai to secure the plane's black box and for garnering separatist support in returning the victim's bodies. Internationally, this praise was more subdued, with some arguing that this sort of high-level negotiation legitimised the separatist group possibly responsible for the shooting down of MH17, and set a dangerous precedent.

In a special sitting of the Dewan Rakyat (Malaysia's lower house) on Wednesday, PM Najib reflected on the previous week. His tone was stronger than before as he spoke of 'murderers' and (oddly) 'genocide'. [fold]

On a defensive note, he reiterated that the flight path was deemed safe and defended his 'risky decision' to negotiate directly with the head of the pro-Russian separatist group. In his speech, Najib said he had negotiated with Borodai so he could fulfill a promise to the victims' families to return their relatives' bodies before Raya (he has since conceded that this will not be possible). He noted, quite rightly (and fittingly for the holy month of Ramadan), that 'sometimes we must work quietly in the service of a better outcome.'

Among the solemn praise and a palpable feeling of solidarity in Malaysia, there is also anger. On Tuesday, a group of 300 protesters marched to the Russian and Ukrainian embassies in Kuala Lumpur under banners that read #Justice4MH17. The group called for stronger action by the Government against the perpetrators of what they called the 'genocide at 33,000 feet'. It was this notion of genocide that was picked up by politicians and later endorsed by Najib, who thanked his opposition colleagues for the comparison.

Najib has repeatedly called for unity and solidarity in the wake of the disaster. Indeed, his prime ministership could do with a dash of both. After narrowly winning a second term last year he is often derided as out of touch with Malaysians. Worse, he has managed to get offside with the still powerful but ageing former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. His predicament is worsened by widespread criticism of his government's handling of MH370, the difficulty of managing growing religious tensions, as well as the recent kidnappings and overall deterioration of the situation in Sabah. 

In times of crisis, divisions are often forgotten and previously unpopular leaders can reshape themselves. News media, and people I've spoken to here in Kuala Lumpur, have parroted international praise of Najib for his 'quite diplomacy'. But this praise may be short lived. Old divisions will quickly reemerge when a week of front pages about the MH17 disaster subside, but pressure will remain on the Government to win justice for the victims.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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