Missing Malaysian Airline, Recollections of a Hijacker and Political Twists

| by Laksiri Fernando

( March 16, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Human curiosity at least is curious. It’s like a wildfire, continuously catches on. Since I started to hear about the disappearance of the Malaysian Airline, MH-370, going from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, a week ago, I was curious about its fate. There were 239 human souls in it after all. The curiosity increased given the host of theories and speculations thrown into circulation by the media, some improbable but not impossible.

On the disappeared Malaysian Airlines, the authorities are now turning the attention to the Pilot, Captain Zaharie Shah, 53 years of age, instead of others. Has he hijacked his own plane?
The latest in line is the ‘piracy theory.’ If it is correct, the plane is landed somewhere and covered with camouflage. What happened to the passengers? It is an unanswered question. After taking a U-turn towards the west just after entering the Vietnamese air space, it is believed that it could have reached either Sri Lanka on the south side, or Kazakhstan on the north side, given its fuel capacity. This has resurrected the expectations of the families and friends of the disappeared. If it were the LTTE days, even one could have theorized that it would have landed at Iranamadu.

Finally I have decided to throw my hat in the ring, giving my own explanation or story. This is pleasure writing, deviating from rather the sizzling political matters in Sri Lanka.

Who could be Hijackers?

After resigning from a brief stint at SLFI (as Director) in Colombo, I was going to take up a position at the UNSW. This was in November 1995. I was asked whether I could stopover in Bangkok to attend a workshop as a resource person to which I willingly agreed. It was also going to be part of my job to be, ‘training on human rights.’ I also had an additional incentive to stop by, because of my abiding interest and research on Burma, by that time already renamed as Myanmar. I was told that I was going to meet a lot of Burmese students.

The training was held at the Rangsit Campus of the Thamasat University in Pathum Thani, about 40 miles north of Bangkok. The exact location was the Japanese Studies Centre in the campus, near AIT or the Asian Technology Institute, where we stayed and conducted the training. The trainees were from different countries of the Asia/Pacific region but the bulk of them were Burmese.

When I alighted from the taxi from the airport in the evening, a host of Burmese students came to help me and I could remember a particular one named Ye Yint, meaning the ‘brave one.’ He was a trainee as well as a volunteer in helping the organizational matters of the workshop. By that time I have been very familiar with the Burmese and particularly the students, having been to the Thai-Burma border areas and even to Manerplaw, the Karen rebel held area before its fall. They are friendly folks, perhaps like Sri Lankans, at least overtly, until you come into a conflict or disagreement.

Ye Yint was like a room boy to me. He did all the ‘errands’ even without asking or even when I wanted to do the tasks myself. I have never been a ‘parasite.’ The secret on his part perhaps was that he wanted to learn the lessons well. Having worked on human rights in Geneva and also having a doctorate on the subject, without boasting, I was a good trainer among several others like me, or so I believed.

Ye was about 25 years of age, cannot be more. He was friendly but shy. He was articulate in the class but not talkative at all with others. I have noticed that the other Burmese students treated him with some reverence which I couldn’t understand at first. He was a leader of a sort. Then came the secret. He revealed it to me as a matter of fact fashion later.

He was a Plane Hijacker.

Hijacking in 1989

Late 1980s were turmoil years in Burma. Students were at the forefront of the democracy uprising. Be assured, there was no outside instigation. By 1988 it peaked and then came the repression. Aung San Suu Kyi who had come to see her mother had thrown her weight behind the movement and in fact leading the opposition. Repression was something that many well-meaning people could not bear, but desperate acts were not warranted in my view.

By the time when Ye Yint and Ye Thai Ha hijacked a plane on 6 October 1989, Suu Kyi and Tin Oo, two of the leaders of the democracy movement were under house arrest. Hundreds of students and protesters were killed and thousands were put behind bars. That was the first known plane hijacking in Burma.

I have not known of the other, Ye Thai Ha, but Ye Yint had been an electrical engineering student at a university or technological institute. Most probably the other was the real leader or the planner. From records I know that Thai Ha indulged in further violent activities thereafter. He didn’t attend our training, the purpose of which was to train and impart skills in promoting human rights without indulging in violence or adventurist acts. Democracy and peaceful means were the methods emphasised in the training such as writing, negotiation, peaceful campaigning, UN mechanisms etc. Even other trainers perhaps were not aware that there was a ‘hijacker’ in our midst. He didn’t look as such and perhaps no one does.

As Ye Yint related, they boarded the plane in the southern coastal town of Mergui en route to Yangon. From records I know it was an F-28 Fokker plane. There were 85 passengers. They had only improvised bombs and asked the pilot to take the plane to Bangkok. Perhaps he did it willingly. That was a time when many of the professionals - professors, doctors, lawyers, engineers – were on the streets and in sympathy with the democracy movement.

The Thai authorities however directed the plane to be taken to U-Tapao military airport and the hijackers didn’t have much option or didn’t even know the difference. The demands of the hijackers were to release all political prisoners, particularly Suu Kyi and Tin Oo, and restore democracy whatever it meant at that time. These young people have never seen democracy at all, Burma being under a military rule since 1962.

The Thai authorities opted to negotiate with the hijackers and the Deputy Prime Minister, Thienchai Sirisampahan, was personally involved. All the passengers were eventually released and the two hijackers willingly surrendered. At least they found refuge in Thailand and managed to highlight their cause internationally. At that time I was in Geneva. All international newspapers gave prominence to the incident and highlighted the plight of the human rights situation in Burma.

Some Lessons

It is not my normal disposition to admire a hijacker or people who indulge in such acts whatever the reason. But with Ye Yint, I sympathised. Both hijackers were sentenced for ten years but later they were given conditional pardon by the King of Thailand. Even when I met Ye Yint in 1995 he had to report to the police every month. Ye Yint spoke very highly of Thienchai Sirisampahan (Deputy PM) who had taken him home, advised and helped him in studies and finding an employment.

Ye Yint had a folder of papers that he showed me. He had been accepted by a US University for his studies and the Ford Foundation had offered him a scholarship. He was very keen in pursuing his studies. But by that time his visa was not approved by the US immigration authorities as he was a known hijacker. I was not aware what happened to him later.

One major danger of such events is their demonstration effect. After Ye Yint’s hijack in October 1989 there was another one from Bangkok to Calcutta in November 1990 again by two Burmese students. Even in the case of 1989 hijacking, there were 83 lives involved. Anything going wrong in the perceived plan could have destroyed those lives.

Coming back to MH 370, there were reportedly two possible hijackers on board, Pouria Nourmohammadi, 19 years old, and Seyed Hamid Reza, 29 years and both were young Iranians travelling on stolen passports. They were seeking freedom or refuge in the West. But why did they board on a plane to Beijing? It is still an unanswered question. It is not that they were terrorists or had any inclination for terrorism, but youngsters with brave dispositions could do such things for desperate reasons. Sepala Ekanayake was one example.

This is again a story. I was building my house at Battaramulla in 1999 and one day when I went to inspect the work being done, he was there at the site with the head bass who also hailed from Matara. They were good friends. I saw and met him several times thereafter. He was also a perfect normal person. His hijack was in June 1982, taking an Alitalia Boeing to Bangkok with 340 passengers. When I asked him about the hijacking for my personal curiosity, he smoothly avoided the questions and wanted to discuss politics with me instead. He was aligning with the JHU that time.

Political Twists

On the disappeared Malaysian Airlines, the authorities are now turning the attention to the Pilot, Captain Zaharie Shah, 53 years of age, instead of others. Has he hijacked his own plane? It is said that if not of the pilots, that others (other possible hijackers) cannot switch off the communication equipment so meticulously and fly for seven hours after turning back without detection. The technical matters may be true, but what were the motives? Suicide is also speculated as a motive? Why on earth that Captain Shah decided to commit suicide with 238 others?

The pilots cannot easily be implicated in the plural. The co-pilot Fariq Abdul, 27 years of age, is not a reliable candidate for a suicide mission. He has been a perfect ‘party-man,’ but not of any political party. The attention could be political on the part of the Malaysian authorities instead. Captain Shah is now linked to the Anwar Ibrahim’s opposition party and he is named as a political fanatic. One reason given is that he had attended a (political) trial recently in which Anwar Ibrahim was convicted to jail for five years. His connection with the opposition may be true but for the Captain Shah’s calibre and standing he could have done more in politics than hijacking his own flight to nowhere.

The missing airline MH 370 still remains a mystery without plausible answers even after eight days. The curiosity on my part still remains. The most unfortunate may be its evolving political twist, given by the Malaysian authorities.

About the Author

Professor Laksiri Fernando, BA (Ceylon), MA (New Brunswick) and PhD (Sydney), is former Professor of Political Science and Public Policy, University of Colombo (2000-2010), and thereafter a Visiting Scholar at the University of Sydney (2011-2013). His other major publications include Human Rights, Politics and States: Burma, Cambodia and Sri Lanka; Academic Freedom 1990; Police-Civil Relations for Good Governance; and Political Science Approach to Human Rights. He has previously served as Secretary for Asia/Pacific of the World University Service (WUS) in Geneva (1984-1991) and Director, Diplomacy Training Program (DTP), University of New South Wales, Australia (1995-97) among other positions.