Malaysia, as a member of the Joint Investigation Team in the MH17 case, is committed to its work and is closely monitoring the trial at the District Court in The Hague, but it will not take sides until the completion of the criminal investigation. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Malaysia to Ukraine Raja Reza Raja Zaib Shah spoke in an exclusive interview with Ukrinform about what is important for the Malaysian side in the trial and in seeking justice.
The ambassador also spoke about achievements in bilateral trade and prospects for cooperation in the defense sector, what can attract Malaysian businessmen and tourists in Ukraine, and how his own opinion of Ukraine has changed upon arrival in Kyiv.
OUR APPROACH TO MH17 CASE BASED ON EVIDENCE, NOT TO BE INFLUENCED BY ANY POLITICAL MOTIVES
Question: What's the current position of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin on the results of the MH17 investigation? As we know, the former prime minister was quiet skeptical and he doubted the objectivity of the investigation and saw no convincing evidence that Russia should be held responsible for the MH17 crash. How has the situation changed since February last year after Mahathir Mohamad's resignation because there were no official statements from Mr. Muhyiddin Yassin?
Answer: It is undeniable that the downing of MH17 that happened on July 17, 2014 serves as a grim reminder and will always be in the memory of Malaysian people. Indeed, no words can describe the pain and sorrow of Malaysians, especially the families and loved ones. But Malaysia has never waived from our commitment, which is to seek justice for MH17 victims.
Despite the change in the Malaysian government and the leadership from Tun Dr. Mahathir to Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin in 2020, Malaysia's position on MH17 remains unchanged. We are still committed to the Joint Investigation Team process, and we still maintain that we want to have a transparent, credible and also effective process of the trial, based on the rule of law, in order for justice to prevail.
So our approach has always been based on evidence, not to be influenced by any political motives. In that sense, we always reiterate that the downing of MH17 should not be attributed to any country until the District Court in The Hague, the Netherlands, has examined all the evidence and delivered its judgment later, which I think is going to be a long process.
Question: So no comments till the final verdict?
Answer: We will have to wait for all the evidence that will be submitted to the court until the conclusion of the trial in The Hague. Then we will be able to know the truth and justice will prevail once the judgment has been delivered.
Question: Can you say in more detail about Malaysia's role in this investigation?
Answer: Malaysia is one of the five countries in the Joint Investigation Team, together with Belgium, the Netherlands, Australia, and Ukraine. So we are committed to the process from the very beginning. And again, we must emphasize of having a transparent, credible and also effective process, based on the rule of law, and the trial is still ongoing. So we hope all the parties will give their full focus, support and cooperation towards these collective efforts to secure justice. So that will be a final closure for the victims and family members.
Question: How do you assess the trial at the Schiphol Judicial Complex?
Answer: The trial has been ongoing for some time. We have to be patient. Some people might think that the process is very slow. At the beginning of the trial, they had deliberated on mostly procedural matters. We have to allow the process to take place, until the trial is concluded and until we get the final verdict from the court.
Question: The Malaysian side has no questions about this trial for now?
Answer: We are watching and monitoring the trial closely. Our Embassy in The Hague, the Netherlands, is following the trial closely. We have to allow all the evidence to be submitted to the court.
MH17 TRAGEDY HAS BROUGHT MALAYSIA CLOSER TO UKRAINE
Question: If we speak about the European Court of Human Rights, we have two applications from the victims' relatives and a lawsuit filed by the Netherlands to support the victims' relatives. What do you think about the role of the European Court of Human Rights?
Answer: We take note that parallel actions are being taken elsewhere, including in the European Court of Human Rights, although the trial is ongoing in the District Court in The Hague. Malaysia will not take sides until the completion of the criminal investigation. We will allow whatever action is being taken elsewhere besides the one in The Hague. Other parties are free to file any legal actions, like what Ukraine is doing. So these are all parallel and alternative actions to seek justice.
Question: If we speak about Malaysia itself, what is the amount of compensation paid by Malaysia Airlines to the victims' relatives?
Answer: The compensation given to the relatives of the victims was made on the basis of the Montreal Convention 1999 and also our local law. Malaysia Airlines has provided financial assistance to the families. There was immediate financial assistance of $5,000 for each family. This was after the incident. Malaysia Airlines also provided hotel accommodation for the families to travel to the Netherlands, funeral services and provided counseling services to the families. They also requested Malaysia Airlines to bring some of the belongings of the victims back to their own countries.
Question: Did the Malaysian government spend more money to support the relatives?
Answer: We have our national petroleum company, PETRONAS which offered ten million ringgit [about USD$2.5 million] to be shared among the family members [it is offered to all families of the victims] and this money was given in 2014-2015. PETRONAS also offered an education fund to children of the victims who are still studying. This is additional assistance offered by the Malaysian government through PETRONAS.
Question: In December last year, Minister of Transport Wee Ka Siong said in parliament that the Malaysian government would spend about MYR 23.3 million (USD$5.7 million) on the MH17 trial. What will these funds cover?
Answer: The five Joint Investigation Team countries have jointly agreed to finance the trial in The Hague. So we are committed to contribute USD$5.7 million for the trial, and this money will be allocated in the first quarter of 2021. This contribution will cover all expenses, including security, transportation, communication, facilities, including Ukraine's liaison office and other contingencies expenses. This money is to cover expenses during the trial in The Hague.
Question: So all of this money will be spent this year?
Answer: No, until the end of the trial.
Question: Could there be some additional spending?
Answer: Yes, the expenses could increase.
Question: What is your personal opinion about this case?
Answer: This tragedy has actually brought Malaysia closer to Ukraine. Unfortunately, we became closer because of a sad tragedy but this is the truth. I know this is a painful process for the family members but we are very pleased that finally, the trial has started in The Hague. There are four people who have been accused in the court. Although the trial is being conducted in absentia, meaning the accused are not present, we hope that at the end of the trial the family members of the 298 passengers and crewmembers will have something to say, 'Okay, now we know who is responsible for the downing of MH17.' For me it is important to seek the truth, but we must follow a true, credible and transparent trial.
BILATERAL TRADE IN COVID-19 CRISIS HAS EVEN INCREASED
Question: Then let's talk more about rapprochement. What plans does the Embassy have for this year? Are any visits and meetings between Ukraine and Malaysia planned for this year? What are the current priorities of our bilateral relations?
Answer: We are now in the COVID-19 pandemic situation. There are still travel restrictions. Malaysians cannot travel to overseas right now. Many things have been done virtually through online meetings. But there is still a possibility for visits or meetings to take place.
This year, Ukraine is supposed to host the second Malaysia-Ukraine bilateral consultation. The first one was held in Kuala Lumpur in 2019 between the two foreign ministries. Both sides are still exploring when and where to convene the next meeting, whether the Malaysian delegation will come to Kyiv, or the meeting will be held virtually, or the meeting will be postponed. These are some of the possibilities.
Secondly, Ukraine is interested to have a Joint Trade Committee meeting. Deputy Economy Minister of Ukraine Taras Kachka has already mentioned to me that they prepared to go to Malaysia to attend this meeting. I think the Joint Trade Committee meeting is a very important mechanism.
Last October, we organized an online Malaysia-Ukraine business conference, which is the first one, and I was pleased because 300 Malaysian and Ukrainian companies took part in the online business conference which, I think, is one of the success stories in 2020. This was acknowledged by Mr. Dmytro Kuleba, the Foreign Minister of Ukraine. Some top ten Ukrainian companies took part in this conference. This will provide opportunities for business meetings between Malaysian and Ukrainian companies. I hope that there will be some follow-up from this online conference.
Despite COVID-19, you will be surprised to know that Malaysia-Ukraine bilateral trade in 2020 (January to November) was even better than in 2019 (an increase of 6.4%). For example, from January to November 2020, our total bilateral trade was USD$310 million. I think COVID-19 does not affect our trade and business. So this is good news.
Question: But is it thanks to Ukrainian wheat and Malaysian palm oil, or there are some other categories of goods?
Answer: Yes, of course, Ukrainian agricultural products have now entered the Malaysian market. I should say in a big way. The Ukrainian Embassy in Malaysia and the ambassador have taken proactive approach to increase trade. He is doing a good job. I can give you some interesting statistics. For example, Ukraine is now the No. 1 sunflower oil supplier in Malaysia and also dried peas. Ukraine is the second-biggest supplier of wheat for Malaysia and dried legumes. For the last two years, for the first time, Ukraine has exported fruits (apples) and berries to Malaysia and, of course, Ukrainian chocolates and honey too. Malaysians are now very familiar with your agricultural products and your food products.
For Malaysia, we are very keen to export electronic products to Ukraine besides our palm oil – it is still our No. 1 export - and also IT products and so on. For the Ukrainian side, the new products that they would like to venture into the Malaysian market include poultry, chicken, meat and, of course, agricultural products. This is the priority for Ukraine.
Question: Did electronics exports from Malaysia increase last year?
Answer: Yes, about 16% of Malaysia's products to Ukraine were electronic products. We are pleased that Ukraine now is the fourth-biggest buyer of Malaysia's palm oil among the European countries after the Netherlands, Italy and Spain. We are happy with that. I want to mention here cooperation in three areas - defense, IT and aerospace.
WE CAN SOON EXPECT GOOD NEWS ON COOPERATION IN DEFENSE SECTOR
Question: What is a concrete example of this cooperation?
Answer: Two years ago, intensive discussions and negotiations took place between Malaysian and Ukrainian defense and aerospace companies. There was exchange of visits – many visits took place from Malaysia to Ukraine and also from Ukraine to Malaysia. For example, in 2019, a delegation from Antonov went to Kuala Lumpur. I think it was also reported that they were offered to provide maintenance services for cargo planes in one of the new airports in Malaysia. This discussion is still ongoing with Malaysian companies and also with Ukrspecexport and also Yuzhmash.
You asked me what kind of products we can expect. Of course, when I mentioned Yuzhmash, we are talking about making rockets. We are not referring to making screws and bolts. These negotiations are still ongoing. We can expect in the coming month some good news from this discussion. (You may also want to check with Yuzhmash or Ukroboronprom). Everyone knows that Ukroboronprom and Ukrspecexport produce defense, military equipment, armored vehicles. When I say Malaysia would like to have cooperation with Ukroboronprom, then you know this is something to do with defense technology and defense equipment. I will not mention the details here today because negotiations is a long process. It's not that easy to conclude agreements and contracts.
Question: How does the Malaysian side see the reform of Ukroboronprom? Is it an advantage for cooperation?
Answer: When we mentioned the word 'reform,' this is something forward-looking, we don't undertake reform and go backwards. When we talk about reforms in Ukraine, whether in Ukroboronprom or Yuzhmash, we expect some good progress, advancing some changes in the management and their working methods of these organisations. We hope there will be progress because I know myself the Chairman of Ukroboronprom, Mr. Yuriy Husiev. I know him when he was the governor of Kherson region. I know he is a good manager.
MOST ISLAMIC STATES CALL FOR PROTECTING RIGHTS OF CRIMEAN TATARS
Question: What role can Malaysia take in supporting Crimean Tatars in Russia's illegally annexed Crimea?
Answer: On the issue of Crimea, let me begin with the principled position. As you are aware, Malaysia supports the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine. We voted in favor of United Nations General Assembly Resolution 68/262 [on the territorial integrity of Ukraine] in 2014. In fact, I was the one who took part in the voting because at that time I was serving in New York. This issue, of course, is related to the issue of Crimean Tatars because they are part of the Crimean population.
Last year, at the General Assembly, President Zelensky announced to establish the international Crimean Platform and the summit will be convened this year in August. I think Ukraine will invite all the leaders, including Malaysia, to attend. For Malaysia, regarding the issue of Crimean Tatars, we want to mention that our position is based on respect for freedom, for example, of religion. We have called on all countries, all parties to abide by their international obligations and international law, which is to protect the fundamental rights of the Crimean Tatar people. We must address the issue of the safety and security of the Crimean Tatar people to ensure that their religion, educational and cultural rights are protected and guaranteed.
Question: First Deputy Foreign Minister Emine Dzheppar said that Ukraine was applying to get observer status in the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. Can this status help Ukraine in supporting Crimean Tatars?
Answer: The issue of Crimean Tatars is already on the agenda of the OIC. I think every year they adopted resolutions on Crimean Tatars. They call for the protection of the fundamental human rights of Crimean Tatars.
There is also the separate issue of Ukraine applying to become an observer state in the OIC. You asked me why the observership process is slow. Because some other countries have other issues, and they want to link it with Ukraine's observership in the OIC. They were saying that if the OIC does not resolve their issues, they will not discuss the Ukraine issue to become an observer. But for Malaysia, we follow the consensus. If everyone wants Ukraine to become an observer, we will follow the consensus.
Question: How many countries are making such conditions?
Answer: One or two countries. The majority of the countries support the Crimean Tatar issue. I see this because (when I counted) there are one hundred countries that supported the UN resolution. There are also 30 or so OIC countries among them.
MORE INFORMATION, INCENTIVES NEEDED TO ATTRACT MALAYSIAN INVESTMENT
Question: If we compare conditions for investment in Eastern European countries with Ukraine, what can we do to be more attractive to Malaysia?
Answer: Ukraine is a big country with a population of 43 million, one of the biggest countries in Europe. So this is a big market. You mentioned why there are some hindrances for some countries to invest in Ukraine. Probably, one of the obstacles is finding the right partners or the right companies to collaborate or to conclude some cooperation agreements, to find the suitable company in Ukraine to start a new project or cooperation.
In Ukraine, you have this organization called InvestUkraine. I know it's not a big organization. I've been to their office in 2018. I told them that they should be aggressive and should go out, meaning they should organize conferences, roadshows. They should go to Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore, and explain to them what investment opportunities you can offer to Malaysia or ASEAN. I think they have not done this. This is also one of the obstacles.
You have your strengths – in defense, in aerospace, aviation. Now President Zelensky is trying very hard to attract investment in infrastructure, to build roads. There are a lot of opportunities but we need more information.
Question: Are you also interested in building roads?
Answer: In fact, I told the Ukrainian deputy minister of infrastructure three years ago that Malaysia was interested in managing airports. Malaysia Airlines is a big company. They now have a 20-year contract to manage the Istanbul airport (Sabiha Gokchen). So Malaysia is interested in Boryspil Airport actually.
Question: Not Zhuliany?
Answer: No, not Zhuliany, Poltava or Kherson airports. The [deputy] minister told me that Boryspil Airport is still state-owned, it has yet to be put on concession or privatized.
Malaysia can build roads. We have built roads in India, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and we also build railway tracks. We have very good established companies that have projects overseas. Why can't they come to Ukraine? We need some attractive packages that Ukraine can offer, some incentives that they can offer.
Question: Maybe you also see some interesting objects for privatization in Ukraine?
Answer: Yes, there are many, including small ports. I will convey this information to Malaysian companies. From time to time, I always do this because I have all this information on which roads or ports are to be given for concession. We hope some Malaysian companies will come here to invest.
UKRAINIAN TOURIST ATTRACTIONS SHOULD BE INCLUDED IN MULTI-COUNTRY TOUR PACKAGES
Question: Let's finally talk about some pleasant things - about the time when travel restrictions will be lifted…
Answer: Tourism is an area where we can have close cooperation. The Malaysian Tourism Agency normally comes to Ukraine every year to take part in exhibitions, except last year. I think it's UITM [Ukraine International Travel Market]. We also do seminars, roadshows here in Ukraine. I remember last time they were held in Kharkiv, Odesa and Lviv in 2019. This is to attract Ukrainians to travel to Malaysia. As for Malaysians, they require visa to travel into Ukraine. Some 6,000 Ukrainians visited Malaysia in 2020 and 16,000 in 2019. We are doing promotional activities. There are some signboards about Malaysia in Kyiv.
I have to admit that not many Malaysian tourists come here. We don't have the exact figure. In fact, during the COVID-19 pandemic, there were several Malaysian tourists stranded here because Boryspil Airport was closed and there were no flights back to Malaysia. I remember there was one group of tourists from Malaysia who were stuck in Kyiv for three months.
Sometimes, when I walk in Kyiv, I can meet Malaysians walking on the streets as they do not inform us that they're coming to Ukraine. Probably they come on business or for official purposes.
I've been here for three years and I can inform you that Ukraine has much to offer in terms of tourism. I think you need to have more promotion about tourism in Ukraine, I mean travel agencies. An interesting offer for Malaysians could be multi-country tour packages in which visiting Ukraine is combined with trips to two or three other Eastern European countries, such as Poland and Hungary. Even if Malaysian tourists spend two or three days in Kyiv, it would be good and could bring some income to Ukraine.
Ukraine has many ancient castles, monasteries, palaces, the Seven Wonders, for example, Askania-Nova. You have the Carpathian Mountains. These are all interesting places for Malaysians. Don't forget that Ukraine also has a very unique culture, food and some traditional festivals.
Ukraine should do more to promote medical tourism. Ukraine has spas and mineral springs. Not many people know about the springs in Ukraine, even myself. I've just discovered these when I came here.
By the way, I am also promoting Ukrainian tourism to my close friends, my old university friends and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I tell them that they can come to Ukraine. I am doing some free promotion for Ukraine (smiles).
Question: What was the most surprising thing for you here in Ukraine?
Answer: Earlier, I thought that Ukraine is a closed country. I used to travel to Poland from Malaysia, as well as Hungary. But I have never thought of going to Ukraine. I was thinking: 'What is there in Ukraine?' Ukraine has unique culture. People are very helpful and friendly. They are open to foreigners. I remember my first week here. I was in the subway, asking people for directions. I also asked them where to find a restaurant, the Pechersk Lavra monastery… I'm really impressed that old buildings are demolished in Ukraine, like what some other countries are doing. It is good to preserve all these places.
Nataliia Kostina, Ukrinform
Photo credit: Yevhen Liubimov