Surabaya Mourning Air Asia Victims But Not Its Poor

Praying will definitely not improve anything!

Air Asia main terminal in Kuala Lumpur. (Andre Vltchek)
Air Asia main terminal in Kuala Lumpur. (Andre Vltchek)

by Andre Vltchek

For many years and decades and in the most vulgar manner, plane crashes have been exploited by mass media. As if lives lost at 30.000 feet above the ground or the surface of oceans were more valuable than those that were interrupted ‘on the surface’ by calamities, misery, hunger or preventable diseases, especially in the poor neighborhoods and in the slums.

Air Asia flight QZ-8501, lost en route from Indonesia’s second largest city, Surabaya, to Singapore, brought unprecedented outpouring of sorrow in all corners of this sprawling and socially collapsed archipelago.

She is too poor to dream of recreational flying.
In Surabaya – she is too poor to fly, but she matters, too! (Vltchek)

Like in a soap opera, even those who could never afford to buy an airplane ticket were now grieving over lives of those who could afford to fly to Singapore, one of the most expensive cities on earth, just for holidays.

Entire tragedy was turned into an absolute pop event by turbo-commercialized and vulgar Indonesian media, especially by the television stations.

In Indonesia where all frontiers between what should be acceptable and what should be not, collapsed, and the suffering of others is always in vogue. All natural and man-made disasters are triggering aggressive and rude coverage, generating great revenues for radio and television stations.

If Indonesian reporters could stick their lenses and microphones straight into a morgue, they definitely would.

Ms. Ira, a teacher from Bandung, said that the coverage became thoroughly unacceptable: “Several TV stations are broadcasting day and night, all the details related to the AA flight that crashed. But their reporters are stupid and outrageously disrespectful. They have no clue how to ask questions. For instance, the families of victims are being asked again and again ‘how do they feel’?”

The BBC reported on 31 December 2014:

Hundreds of people, including young children, turned out to the vigil in Surabaya on Wednesday evening.

Surabaya’s Mayor Tri Rismaharini said: “Let us pray for the grieving families of those on board the plane. Let us pray this will be the last tragedy for Surabaya.”

All New Year’s Eve celebrations in East Java province were cancelled.


The crash of Air Asia flight QZ8501 was just the latest incident in the series of grisly Indonesian air disasters. The country’s infrastructure is in shambles, from basically a clogged road system, to terribly maintained ferries. Trains keep derailing, ships are sinking and airplanes falling from the skies, like hale.

Until now, for safety reasons, many Indonesian airlines are banned from flying to the European Union, and till just recently, the ban was covering all Indonesian carriers.

It is because the country has one of the highest air accident rates anywhere in the world, exceeding those in many war-torn countries?

On many occasions, writing books and making films about Indonesia, I encountered several hair-raising near calls: missed runway here and there, near mid-air collisions, landing gears failing to extend. Flying Indonesia airlines is like playing Russian roulette.

On top of it, Indonesian airports, as well as their navigation systems, are fully out of date.

Reuters mentioned, in connection with the recent air disaster, that Indonesian traffic controllers compared to “Singapore and elsewhere in the world”, use “outdated equipment”. It is truly a mild way to put it.

Mr. Mahfudz Mahdan, an aviation expert, explained to

“In my opinion, the Air Asia tragedy happened because of human error. Pilot should have known about the dangerous Cumulonimbus clouds, when they were still at a fair distance of 100 miles from the airplane. He was well aware that the traffic was heavy on that route, and it was not so easy to change the flight pattern at the last moment, especially to request ‘going up’. I think how he handled the situation was totally wrong. He should have returned to base. Even if he could have brought the plane up to much higher altitude, the maneuver would have been very risky. The plane was full, it was heavy, and there would have been great burden added to the engines. And also, the weather was damp, which generally decreases performance of the engines.

I think the pilot took a series of wrong decisions. He took matters too lightly.

In my opinion, we should rethink the process of the recruitment of civilian pilots, especially when it comes to the recruitment of ex-Indonesian Air Force pilots. They do have a different mentality. As soldiers, they were trained to be brave and tough. As civilian pilots, they should think first about the safety of the passengers. When faced with emergencies or extreme dangers, civilian and the military pilots should act differently.”



Air Asia A320, same type of aircraft as the one that fell on Dec 28. For safety reasons, many Indonesian airlines are banned from flying to the European Union (cc-flickr)

Ever since the 1965 US-orchestrated military coup, which resulted in between 1 and 3 million people losing their lives, Indonesia has some of the most unregulated market and profit driven regimes in the world. Its savage capitalism combined with endemic corruption and absolute spite for the poor majority, is devouring resources that in most of more moderate societies would be used for social programs and for development of the infrastructure. Or simply left alone, as a sign of respect for nature. 

The state of the country is thoroughly grotesque and only due to the discipline of the Western mass media, and servility and outright stupidity of the local press, the country is not appearing on the television monitors and in the press as ‘the case study’ and example, showing that the capitalism simply cannot work in a plundered and miserably poor neo-colony of the West.


Instead of praying, Surabaya’s Mayor Tri Rismaharini should be promoting improvements at the airports (Surabaya’s Juanda Airport had inaugurated one new terminal in 2014, but it already looked insufficient and outdated, even before it became fully operational) as well as a total overhaul of the traffic control and the navigation systems. She should be also demanding that Indonesian pilots get at least some basic training.

According to the investigators, the ill-fated Air Asia flight from Surabaya to Singapore almost flew into the heavy clouds. The pilot requested an increase of altitude to 38,000 feet and received permission, within a few minutes, to go up to 34,000 feet. The tower got no verbal reply from the cockpit, but it was electronically registered that the plane went up at an unacceptable angle. The pilots managed to stall the plane. Consequently, the Airbus 320-200 ran out of speed and went down, crashing into the sea.

That has nothing to do with some divine intervention. It only speaks of a bad communication between the traffic controllers and the cockpit and of the terrible skills of the pilots.


Cancelling New Year’s Eve celebrations is nothing else than a thorough lunacy and hypocrisy.

Mr. Andi, an IT manager and Surabaya resident, is outraged:

“The mayor of Surabaya banned festivities, and urged people to pray. Instead of praying, they should be doing something about real problems the city is facing: like thousands who are dying from untreated illnesses, malnutrition and traffic accidents.”

Surabaya — a city of over 3 million inhabitants is facing an endless chain of disastrous indicators more common in Sub-Saharan Africa, than in Asia Pacific region: from crumbling health, sanitation, education, to a total lack of public transportation, cultural institutions and public spaces. Hundreds of people are dying, daily, because of extreme poverty, malnutrition, inefficient hospitals, toxic water, and rampant crime.

Ms. Susy Nataliwati, researcher at Japan Studies of University of Indonesia, points out: “The victims are from at least the middle class level of the society and so the government is paying attention to them. Those who are poor and die during the ferry disasters, for instance, get no such consideration whatsoever…”

There is not much to celebrate, in Surabaya, the city which hardly produces, only consumes; the city squarely divided between a few rich families, a small middle class and the majority that is living in dire misery.

But the majority is definitely not what the Surabaya’s mayor had in mind when she banned the celebrations of the New Year’s Eve.

André Vltchek is a novelist, filmmaker, and investigative journalist. He has covered wars and conflicts in dozens of countries. His latest book is with Noam Chomsky: On Western Terrorism: From Hiroshima to Drone Warfare. His critically acclaimed political revolutionary novel Point of No Return is now re-edited and available. Oceania is his book on Western imperialism in South Pacific. His provocative book about post-Suharto Indonesia and market-fundamentalism is called Indonesia: The Archipelago of Fear. He completed a feature documentary Rwanda Gambit (2013) about Rwandan history and the plunder of DR Congo. After living for many years in Latin America and Oceania, Vltchek presently resides and works in East Asia and Africa. He can be reached through his websiteRead other articles by Andre.


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