Why Flight 370 Pilot Is Wrongly Being Called A 'Fanatic'

Mar 17, 2014
Originally published on March 17, 2014 8:50 pm

With the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines flight 370, Slate’s politics and foreign affairs editor William Dobson joins Here & Now’s Robin Young to explain speculation that the pilot of the missing plane is a “fanatical” supporter of Anwar Ibrahim.


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Like much of the world, our gaze has turned toward Malaysia where something interesting caught our eye. Now, Malaysian officials say they believe that missing Flight 370 was intentionally diverted and then are focusing on everyone on board, including the pilot and co-pilot. And what caught our attention was a picture circulating of the pilot in some sort of protest T-shirt. It reads: Democracy is dead. And then along with that picture, all sorts of speculation that pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah was a fanatical supporter of a Malaysian named Anwar Ibrahim. And so maybe that had something to do with the plane's disappearance.

Well, our next guest says that would be like saying, an American is suspicious he supports either Democrats or Republicans. William Dobson is Slate's foreign affairs and politics editor, author of "The Dictator's Learning Curve: Inside the Global Battle for Democracy." And he joins us from the NPR studios in Washington. Welcome.

WILLIAM DOBSON: Hi. Thanks for having me.

YOUNG: And you say that for someone to be as this pilot is said to be, a fanatical supporter of Anwar Ibrahim, sounds scary as long as you know nothing about Anwar Ibrahim. Now, many Americans don't. So who is he?

DOBSON: Right, right. Well, Anwar Ibrahim is the 66-yar-old opposition leader who is really the leader of the coalition of opposition parties that represent the biggest thorn in the side to the ruling party in Malaysian. And the first thing you need to know about the ruling party in Malaysia, which is commonly referred to as just UMNO, an acronym for United Malays National Organization, is that they've been in power continuously for 56 years. So this is the type of country which you'd often described as being a semi-authoritarian country. They have elections, but there's never any political change.

YOUNG: Yeah. And Anwar leads a coalition of different parties as you said, including his own multi-ethnic party, that has made some inroads against that sitting government.

DOBSON: Yeah, very important inroads. In 2008, the opposition won more than a third of the seats in parliament, which was the first time that the ruling party lost its super majority in the parliament. In state elections at the same time, the opposition won five of the 13 state governments. Anwar won his own seat in parliament in a landslide over the city of Penang. And subsequently, this past year, UMNO failed to even get a majority of the vote. They still had the majority of the seats in parliament - thanks to vote rigging and gerrymandering - but they're appearing more brittle than ever before. And the opposition parties had been on the rise despite allegations of voter fraud and corruption.

YOUNG: Well, in fact, in the past, Anwar Ibrahim had been imprisoned. He was a political prisoner in solitary confinement for several years before he won that seat. He's also on occasion been brought up on trumped-up charges. Now, we just have to - an alert here for parents, three, two, one, you know, if the kids are listening. He's been brought up on trumped-up sodomy charges, not once but twice. And that second time, very recently.

DOBSON: That's right. So - I mean, you know, and he's a fascinating figure because he used to be - and this is sort of really related to these charges - that he's used to be the deputy prime minister. So Anwar was originally really viewed someone who was rising up within this party structure. But when he was deputy prime minister, he began to speak about the corruption within the party and the nepotism. And that was viewed as a not so veiled statement about the outgoing prime minister, a man named Mahathir. And Mahathir understood that this posed a threat to the system that he had created. And so before leaving power, he had Anwar put in prison on these charges of sodomy. And that kept him in prison for six years, most of it in solitary confinement.

He came out in 2004, re-entered politics, and he's had these successes. But the last time when - in - after his successes in 2008, these - the charges were brought up again in a separate case, new case, same allegations. Why would they do this? One, because it's against the law for men to have sex in Malaysia. That's one. And two, when he is under these charges as he is now because of the acquittal from 2012 being reversed last week, he is prevented from running in elections. And so he will not be allowed to run in some important regional elections that are going to be coming up soon. So, in many ways, many people in Malaysia, whether they think well of Anwar or not, they view this as clearly a tool used by the government to try and keep him tarnished and marginalized.

YOUNG: Well, what you said is key is because he had been acquitted of these - as his supporters say - trumped-up charges in 2012, but that was just reversed just before this pilot took off on his flight. And people are drawing the dots, saying that he's trying to make some kind of statement about that reversal and this roadblock that's been put in the way of this opposition leader that he supports. But you write - you have got a great sentence here. You write that Anwar Ibrahim, the opposition leader, is trying to defeat Malaysia's authoritarian regime through elections not terrorism, let alone revolution. So, to be clear, what we know is that the pilot of flight 370 is a fanatical supporter of a nonviolent man who supports a pluralistic and democratic Malaysia.

DOBSON: That's right. That's right. Yeah. I mean, and he, you know, it - we don't know the state of mind of this pilot or the co-pilot or the crew. We don't. But the fact that all of a sudden you had unnamed political - police and political sources coming forward and saying that, hey, did you know that he was a fanatical supporter, I mean, the word fanatical right there is really supposed to trigger our fears and in many cases for most of the world, someone that maybe they're not familiar with because they don't follow Malaysian politics.

But in fact, this is a man who really represents one of the foremost voices for democracy in the world. He was someone who was unofficially offered the secretary general position in the United Nations after he came out of prison, but he made it very clear that he would not accept it if it was offered to him because he wanted to remain in Malaysia and try and fight for these changes.

YOUNG: And, William Dobson, you make it very clear. We don't know anything about this pilot's state of mind, but we do know something about this opposition leader he supported in. What else does this say about the government that's running this investigation, that, as you say, in the week where they can't come up with answers about a plane, they are pointing fingers at this opposition leader?

DOBSON: Well, Malaysia is not used to being in the middle of an international media storm. And what this is - I think this has probably been an incredibly difficult and trying period for the government because you can see it in the press conferences. They are not used to having to face the barrage of questions and be second-guessed the way that they are. And in many ways, this sort of represents the type of nepotistic, corrupt system that they've had in place where these positions are assured to people through rigging and whatnot.

And so this is, you know, a period in which the Malaysian government is really being tested and not looking good, not really measuring up. And so even among their supporters, they can't be in any way proud of this and - because they know what this is doing for Malaysia's reputation. And for those that are an on Anwar's side of the camp, they say, see we told you so. This is what you should expect from this crew.

YOUNG: William Dobson, politics and foreign affairs editor for Slate. His book is "The Dictator's Learning Curve." Thanks so much. Fascinating look at Malaysia. Thank you.

DOBSON: Thank you for having me.

YOUNG: It's HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.