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Missing passenger jet roils Malaysian politics

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 19, 2014 at 8:54 pm •  Published: March 19, 2014

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — It took more than a week, but both sides of Malaysia's bitterly contested political divide are now sparring over the disappearance and hunt for the missing jetliner, a possible distraction for a government already under fire for its handling of the crisis.

The opposition is attacking the government, relishing in the international criticism that has been directed at leaders unused to such scrutiny. Pro-government blogs are focusing on the pilot's support for opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, hoping that suspicions against the former will discredit the latter.

Malaysian politics have been defined in recent years by the government's attempts to stop the rise of opposition parties chipping away at its five-decade grip on power. Anwar, the opposition movement's main leader, spent six years in jail on corruption and sodomy charges, a campaign that Western rights groups and governments say is politically motivated.

The missing plane has reopened this fault line because the pilot, Zaharie Ahmad Shah, is a supporter of Anwar and the uncle of his daughter-in-law. It got extra traction locally when the Daily Mail, a British tabloid, described Zaharie as a "political fanatic," and used this to buttress a theory that he was involved in the plane's disappearance.

Investigators have said they believe the Malaysia Airlines plane was deliberately diverted during a March 8 flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, and that someone with aviation skills was likely at helm of the Boeing 777. They are investigating Zaharie's background closely, but have publicly or privately voiced no suspicions against him. No evidence has publicly come to light incriminating the pilot.

On Tuesday, Anwar defended Zaharie, and accused the government and the media that it controls of using the issue to slander him. In the same statement, Anwar went on to raise questions over the government's competence in its handling of the crisis.

"I cannot express enough my disgust to those who are so ready, in the absence of any proof whatsoever, to pin the blame on Captain Zaharie," he wrote on his blog, adding that citing the pilot's support for him as "a probable reason for the disappearance of flight MH370 is not only reckless and insensitive, but in the absence of any proof, is highly defamatory."

No government minister has attempted to link Anwar to the issue, but supportive blogs and papers have mentioned the link. On Tuesday, a Malaysian journalist asked Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who is also acting transport minister, whether investigators planned to question Anwar in relation to the probe.

"We have been very consistent — the government's main focus from Day One has been on search and rescue. We didn't bring this up," said Hishammuddin, who is a cousin of Prime Minister Najib Razak. "This issue is above politics."

Malaysia has a history of political persecution, but violence between the government and the opposition has not been part of political landscape, unlike in some other Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines and Indonesia.

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