KUALA LUMPUR – Many Malaysians are urging their government and world leaders to take a tough stance against Russia after pro-Russia rebels allegedly shot down a Malaysia Airlines jet, with some calling for economic sanctions and a boycott of Russian goods.
While the rebels and Ukraine blame each other for Thursday’s downing of Flight MH17 near the Russian border in eastern Ukraine, Russia’s government is being accused of not doing enough to ensure that authorities have proper access to the crash site.
Much of the Malaysian anger toward Russia stems from the inability for family members of Muslims who were aboard the plane to perform burial rites as quickly as possible, according to Islamic custom. Of the 298 people aboard the plane, 43 were from Muslim-majority Malaysia and 12 were from Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.
The plane crashed in rebel-held territory, and the separatists — who are being blamed for shooting down the plane by much of the international community, including the United States — have been accused of preventing emergency workers from retrieving the victims’ bodies.
The issue has caused deep resentment in Malaysia, where many have blasted Russian President Vladimir Putin. Even politicians, who Friday were careful not to point any fingers, seem to be losing patience.
“Pro-Russian terrorists have not handled #MH17 victims with dignity. Putin promised PM @NajibRazak he would help. He hasn’t,” Malaysian Youth and Sport Minister Khairy Jamaluddin tweeted Sunday, referring to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.
As people headed to Kuala Lumpur shopping malls on Sunday, their minds were still reeling from the horrific images of the crash site that have inundated television screens across the Southeast Asian country. Many called for tough economic sanctions and an international boycott of Russian goods and services.
“Our government and the whole world have to do something about this case,” said 27-year-old Nur Zehan Abu Bakar, who works in the education sector. “If not, what will happen to our country? What will happen to (Malaysia Airlines)? To show that we are angry with Russia and if they still continue not to help us, I think the best way is for all Malaysians to boycott Russian products.”
Charles Foo, a retiree who was spending time with his family outside a mall, echoed Nur Zehan’s sentiments. “They (Russia) are a big country. We are a very small country, so how much can we do, unless all nations in the world stop buying their goods and whatever,” he said.
Malaysia is one of Russia’s main trading partners in Southeast Asia. Russia also is a key supplier for Malaysia’s military, delivering 18 Sukhoi fighter jets to the Malaysian Air Force over the past decade.
James Chin, a professor at the political science unit of Monash University in Malaysia, said he believes it is unlikely that Russian-Malaysian relations will be seriously harmed as a result of the incident, though he added that a lot will depend on the outcome of the official investigation.
“The Malaysian government really can’t do much,” Chin said. “The Malaysian government takes the position that it cannot antagonize the Russians now because they hold the key to the investigation.”
Some Malaysians said it is important to remain rational and wait for the investigation to be completed.
“For now, I will calm myself down and not listen to all the noise,” a 36-year-old dancer, who wanted to be identified only by his family name, Wong, said at a popular Kuala Lumpur shopping district. “There is no point for me to get emotional at the moment. I encourage everyone to stay calm.”
Tricia Yeoh, chief operating officer at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, a Malaysian think tank, said while she can understand why Malaysians are so upset, people need to wait for a thorough investigation to be completed before reaching any conclusions on who is responsible for the disaster.
“People need to be cautious in a geopolitical climate and environment in which not all information is being revealed,” Yeoh said. “We certainly do not know all there is to know, and for that reason I would have to wait. Having said that, of course all governments should be cooperating to ensure investigations are thoroughly done. This includes Russia.”