Cooped up in a Beijing hotel, family members of a popular Uyghur artist—among the 239 people on board the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines Flight MH370—are finding it difficult getting up to speed on the latest developments on the air crash, according to a source Tuesday, citing communication problems.
As daily briefings on the mysterious disappearance of the plane are conducted in Mandarin, the family members of painter Memetjan Abdullah who speak only the ethnic minority Uyghur language appear pitifully sad and abandoned among the grieving relatives of the Chinese passengers, who have been put up at Metro Park Lido Hotel throughout the 17-day drama, the source said.
"Looking at them, I feel very sad," the source told RFA's Mandarin Service, referring to two family members of Abdullah, from the desert oasis town of Kashgar in China's troubled Xinjiang region, home of the mostly Muslim Uyghur minority.
"I hope there are some Uyghur-speaking people in Beijing who can help give them a translation of the briefings."
"They are also left behind in the counseling sessions," the source said, speaking on condition of anonymity and without giving any particulars of the family members of Abdullah, who left a wife and 10-year-old daughter.
RFA's Uyghur Service telephoned Lido Hotel in Beijing to speak to Abdullah's family members in a bid to confirm the source's claims but a person manning the phone lines refused to put the call through, citing orders from the top management.
"We have the order from upper level management. As hotel staff, we can’t let you talk to them; we need official permission," she said.
"If they need a translator, we will arrange it. If they need any help, we will provide it. I don’t think they need help. That’s a rumor," she said.
She also said that "many people" had called the hotel Tuesday asking whether they could be volunteer translators for Abdullah's family.
"We told them the same thing: as I said, we need official permission. Also, we will provide everything they need "
Abdullah was part of a delegation of two dozen artists returning to China from an art exhibition in Malaysia's capital Kuala Lumpur to mark the 40th anniversary of diplomatic ties between China and Malaysia.
When Flight MH370 disappeared from the civilian radar screens less than an hour after taking off on March 8, Chinese media initially blurred Abdullah's name from the passenger manifest, apparently fearing that a Uyghur separatist attack was to blame for the flight's disappearance.
The Chinese government has since ruled out the possibility that any of the Chinese citizens on the plane—about two-thirds of the 227 passengers —were terrorists or separatists who might have tried to hijack or destroy it.
The aircraft disappeared one week after a deadly attack at a train station in the southwestern Chinese city of Kunming in which a group of knife-wielding assailants killed 29 people and wounded 143.
Chinese authorities blamed the attack on separatists from the restive far western region of Xinjiang, where many Uyghurs say they are subjected to political, cultural, and religious repression for opposing Chinese rule.
China has intensified a sweeping security crackdown in Xinjiang, where according to official figures about 100 people are believed to have been killed over the past year—many of them Uyghurs accused by the authorities of terrorism and separatism.
On Monday, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that Flight MH370 had crashed in the southern Indian Ocean, citing satellite-data analysis by British company Inmarsat, an implicit admission that all 239 people on board had died.
Following Najib's announcement, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said Beijing would ask Malaysia to provide more detailed and accurate information on the plane, reports said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping will send a special envoy to Kuala Lumpur to consult with the Malaysian government on the crash, state news agency Xinhua said on Tuesday.
Clash with police
Also on Tuesday, dozens of distraught relatives of Chinese passengers clashed with police in Beijing, accusing Malaysia of "delays and deception."
About 20 to 30 protesters threw water bottles at the Malaysian embassy and tried to storm the building, demanding to meet the ambassador, witnesses told Reuters news agency.
Earlier, the relatives, many with tear-stained faces, had linked arms and chanted "The Malaysian government has cheated us" and "Malaysia, return our relatives" as they marched peacefully and held banners, the agency said in a report.
Bad weather in the region far off Australia's western coast on Tuesday forced the suspension of the search for any wreckage, just as a series of satellite images and other sightings of floating objects had raised hopes that debris from the plane would be found.
Reported by Irade for RFA's Uyghur service, and RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated by Dolkun Kamberi and Irade. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.