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A small group of protesters stand outside the Russian embassy in Kuala Lumpur demanding action against those responsible for shooting down Flight MH17.

Iain Marlow/The Globe and Mail

Hariyati Abdul Majid makes regular dashes for Kuala Lumpur's international airport.

She uses its sleek terminals to fly to Somalia and Kashmir, Tamil Tiger-controlled areas in Sri Lanka, tsunami-ravaged Indonesia and parts of Myanmar and the Phillipines battered by guerrilla fighting. The soft-spoken psychology professor is a member of Mercy Malaysia, a group that counsels those suffering from the rending grief that comes with wars and disasters.

Four months ago, Dr. Hariyati was dispatched once again to Malaysia's main airport – but this time she never left.

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Instead of boarding a Malaysia Airlines flight, she was assigned to help the cabin crew of the national carrier deal with the devastating loss of Flight 370, which had mysteriously vanished en route to Beijing. There were 239 passengers on board, including 12 employees from the airline, whose staff are so tight-knit that some have bought houses next to each other and become neighbours, as well.

Now, all of these people had simply disappeared, almost assuredly dead, although without death's finality.

The search for that plane was still ongoing when another Malaysia Airlines plane, Flight 17, crashed en route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur last week, shot from the sky over eastern Ukraine.

Dr. Hariyati and her team once again rushed to the airport – this time at 1 a.m. – to break the news both to disembarking Malaysia Airlines staff, who had been airborne as their colleagues were downed, as well as those who, immediately after hearing about the crash, still had to prepare for takeoff into what now seemed like increasingly unfriendly skies.

"Many of them were already emotionally drained," says Dr. Hariyati, 44, as she sits at a small canteen table at the airport before breaking her Ramadan fast with her colleagues. "MH17 opened up a new floodgate."

Because Dr. Hariyati didn't leave the airport for two-and-a-half days, she didn't notice at first the posts on her Facebook page asking whether it was true that she, too, had lost someone in the crash – former student Mohd Ali Md Salim.

The 30-year-old had left for Rotterdam to do his PhD. But the two remained in touch; Mr. Salim had showed Dr. Hariyati's parents around Amsterdam while she was at a conference there. Many on the Mercy Malaysia team also knew the young man. He had been flying home to Malaysia, and was uncomfortable about the flight; before leaving, he posted a short video from his cabin on social media: "Feeling a little nervous," he wrote in the caption.

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Leaving even grief counselors grieving, the two catastrophic events of the past four months – their sheer unlikeliness, their sheer horror – have become a sort of prolonged Malaysian 9/11, the kind of searing tragedy that not only forces a country to deal openly with private pain, but to reflect on collective problems and national identity. The question now is whether citizens in this relatively young country, which gained independence in 1957, will use this opportunity to address issues such as ongoing ethnic tensions, cronyism, and an autocratic goverment, and to come together in a new way – or whether this nation of 30 million will simply mourn, shrug off the tragedies as a matter of fate, and move on as before.

"As a nation, were' still an adolescent," says Dr. Hariyati. "This tragedy has happened at a time when Malaysia is trying to consolidate our identity. Maybe this is God telling us to stop our bickering."

This latest tragedy has at least offered Prime Minister Najib Razak a second chance at shaping Malaysia's reputation – as well as his own.

On the Monday after the crash of MH17, he called a hastily arranged press conference well after midnight – not at his office, but at his white-washed palatial mansion in Petrajaya, just outside Kuala Lumpur, where the driveway down a palm-fringed road is protected by a massive gate bearing the tigers of the country's coat of arms. His podium was set up in a regal room with five chandeliers.

Everything about the setting implied that, this time, Mr. Najib was in control: While Western leaders were lashing out at Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose government is widely suspected to be behind separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine who are believed to have shot down MH17, Mr. Najib's defense and transport ministers had been dispatched to Kiev – and he had called journalists to announce a surprising deal that he had personally brokered with insurgent leader Alexander Borodai to retrieve the black boxes and, most importantly, the bodies of the 43 Malaysians on board.

"In recent days, there were times I wanted to give greater voice to the anger and grief that the Malaysian people feel, and that I feel," said Mr. Najib, reading in a deep voice from a statement, dressed in a sombre pin-striped suit. "But sometimes, we must work quietly in the service of a better outcome."

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He took no questions, leaving Malaysian journalists, many of whom work for news outlets owned by firms linked to Mr. Najib's ruling party, grumbling. But since then, the prime minister has been portrayed as a steady-handed leader firmly in control of the MH17 tragedy.

This praise is a stark contrast from how he was perceived after MH370. Mr. Najib was largely absent immediately after the tragedy, and his government fumbled without him. Malaysia has long been a hub on the Pacific Rim – with short flights possible to places as diverse as Sydney and Calcutta but the government was unused to harsh questions or being a part of a developing global news story, so they retrenched. Malaysians assumed their bureaucrats were too lazy or uninterested to risk bothering their superiors, and were left embarrassed in the spotlight and reliant on international sources for information about their own country in the crucial early hours.

"For all we knew, the plane could have gone down in the South China Sea, with people floating there – those hours could have been life-saving," says Nathaniel Tan, a writer who used to work with the political opposition.

Critics of the government saw this as proof of a larger problem, a sharp drop in the quality of national institutions after decades of cronyism: hiring policies favour the majority Malays – who make up more than 50 per cent of the population – over sizable communities of indigenous peoples, ethnic Chinese and Indians.

The ruling coalition is also largely composed of Malays. Although the opposition won a majority of the vote in the last election (with a voter turnout of about 85 per cent), they were frozen out of power by gerrymandered constituencies. The opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, has been repeatedly jailed in recent years on charges of sodomy – with an acquittal overturned as recently as March, around the same time as the disappearance of MH370.

The powerful elite was personified by the man Mr. Najib tapped as a spokesperson after that first crash: defence minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who is related to two former prime ministers, and once, on TV, brandished a traditional Malay dagger that reminds many ethnic Chinese Malaysians of scarring race riots in 1969.

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"I was embarrassed at our incompetence," says Subramaniam Pillay, a business professor at Taylor's University in Kuala Lumpur.

Some hoped that the outrage so many Malaysians felt would at least bring the country's divided groups together. Mr. Najib has attempted to do that with a "1Malaysia" policy. An advisor to the prime minister had to resign after he threatened to take away Indians' citizenship if they made more demands on the government, and called Chinese and Indians in Malaysia "immigrants." But there are entrenched biases between ethnic and religious groups here, who have their own schools and tend to socialize only with one another.

"Over the years it's become more and more polarized," Mr. Tan says. "Things that would be appallingly politically incorrect in the West are fine here."

Racial tensions did cool after MH370, but they were simmering again by the time of the latest crash. And while there was anger at the government after the first crash (one poll showed that less than 26 per cent of Malaysians thought the government was telling the truth about MH370), this time Malaysians view their government, and their national airline, as an innocent bystander to a tragic, international accident.

"With [Flight] 370 there was a really high degree of frustration with the government," says Ambiga Sreenevasan, former head of the Malaysia bar association and a prominent activist who strongly criticized the government's response to the first plane crash. "With MH17, [politicians] know they cannot be blamed for what happened."

Indeed, the only real point of anger in the last week or so has been over the state of the bodies after the crash.

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Islam is Malaysia's state religion, and Muslims traditionally bury the dead within 24 hours, which was impossible when bodies lay in a Ukrainian field, surrounded by armed rebels who were rooting through the debris, bagging remains and initially preventing crash investigators from accessing the scene.

By making a deal with the rebels, Prime Minister Nijab could speak to the vivid concerns of Muslim Malays, and claim to be taking clear action for the global community. But he was also careful not to alienate Russia, which provides military hardware and fighter jets to Malaysia.

"In Malaysia, there is a view that Russia is still a super-power and that [the government] shouldn't antagonize them until there is clear evidence of their complicity," says James Chin, a political scientist with Monash University in Kuala Lumpur

Indeed, as U.S. officials were linking Moscow to the Buk surface-to-air missile systems suspected to be behind the strike on MH17, Mr. Najib's foreign ministry was busy denouncing another government – Israel, for its ground assault on Gaza's Palestinians, whose plight is a popular cause among Malaysia's Muslims.

Religion is not just a cynical political play, though, it's key to how a majority of Malaysians have responded to recent events. Anger at the government is muted in part because of a sense of resignation in the face of God's will.

More than 60 per cent of the country are Muslim, and some observers believe there has been a steady Islamicization of the country in the last few decades. Those who marry Muslim Malays, for example, must convert, and are not allowed to convert back if there is a divorce. One of the youth leaders of the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party also suggested the MH17 plane disaster was God's wrath at Malaysia Airlines for serving alcohol and letting flight attendants wear alluring uniforms, although his remarks were widely condemned.

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"It's a very conservative country, and religion plays a very important role in people's lives," says Ibrahim Suffian of the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, who has done polling in Malaysia for more than a decade. "You have a habit of consigning things to fate or bad luck. We were in the wrong place at the wrong time."

Fate and faith. Over the past few months, Malaysia has grappled with the misfortune of the one, and leaned on the grief-relieving power of the other.

Dr. Hariyati built up trust over four months of counselling with airline employees. But even they shared the Malaysian view that therapy is mostly for those with "mental problems." Islam, on other hand, offers a wellspring of practical help for the stricken – a sense of community, rituals surrounding death and explanations for those who have lost loved ones. The Prime Minister tapped into this with a call for national prayers after the catastrophes, as well as with his focus on getting bodies back for burial.

Akmal Nazim and Akmal Nizam – boyish twentysomething brothers with similar black side parts and plans for international study – have relied on Islam to comfort them during the nation's recent turmoil. They turned to their imam in the days after the crash and have rationalized what's happened according to their faith. They now describe the two events as a "challenge" to their country.

"At the mosque, we talked about it as a tragedy – how God wants to test us, if we see it in a good way or a bad way," says Akmal Nazim, an engineering graduate who plans to study in the U.K.

His older brother, who studies in Sydney, says much the same. "The Japanese had the tsunami," says Akmal Nizam. "Every country has their problems that are created by God. These air crash disasters are tests for Malaysia, for our prime minister."

Such interpretations are inevitably heightened by the timing of the latest crash, which occurred during Ramadan. This is when Muslims fast from dawn to dusk, and many on the plane were coming home to celebrate Hari Raya (Eid), a feast to break that fast. It is actually considered an honour to die during Ramadan. The push to bring bodies back to Malaysia has partly been to get them home before the end of Ramadan (although the complications of a multi-country forensic investigation have made this impossible).

Diyana Yazeera, the 15-year-old daughter of a flight attendant aboard MH17, illustrated this view in a series of posts on Instagram – of herself and her mother, along with messages like this one: "You were my everything. Your departure hit me hard. [But I am starting to realize] how lucky you are to have left on [Ramadan]. Every Muslim's wish and you were the chosen one. I'm sorry I couldn't grant your wish of bringing you to my graduation day … Allah loves you more and I accept that."

Of course, not everyone is able to accept what has happened. For some, the second tragedy has simply been too much to comprehend. "There is a sense of numbness," says Han Yang Chung, a Malaysian counselor who works with HIV/AIDS patients but also counseled Malaysia Airlines staff.

One morning this week, on a busy street outside the Russian embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Fujii Loh was trying to defy this denial. Standing in jean shorts and striped, slip-on shoes, with her earbuds in, she held up a sign before the morning rush hour traffic that said, simply, "Justice for MH17."

Unlike much of the West right now, she wasn't blaming Russia for the crash, but hated the way the bodies were being treated, and figured Russia had the most influence over that. More importantly, though, she says she wanted to remind a crisis-weary nation that the lives lost on Flight 17 still matter.

"I think Malaysia has gotten used to this," she says. "When it first happened, everyone was talking about it. But I checked my Facebook feed yesterday and it wasn't trending anymore. They weren't talking about it. After 370, people have just gotten tired. That's why I wanted to stand here and remind people."

But some here can't forget the dead.

It was the middle of the night, just after Malaysia Airline Flight 17 was blasted from the skies, when Cynthia Gabriel heard a soft knock on the door of her condo in Kuala Lumpur.

The city councilor had spent the previous, horrific day like most Malaysians: On the phone, scrambling to figure out the details of what had happened and reach those who might be affected. Exhausted with grief and confused as to why anyone would be calling on her so late, Ms. Gabriel nonetheless got out of bed. Standing at the door was an old college friend, Mabel Anthonysamy.

They had lived in the same hostel at the Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang, a Malaysian island close to the country's northern border with Thailand, but only recently reconnected at the funeral of a mutual friend's father in Kuala Lumpur – where they had exchanged numbers, optimistic about rekindling a faded friendship.

But now, Ms. Anthonysamy was frantic. "She was asking for help because the plane had crashed," Ms. Gabriel says.

And then she woke up.

Ms. Gabriel knew before she went to bed that her friend, her friend's husband – an oil industry executive – and their young son, were among those who boarded flight MH17 in Amsterdam. But even in her dreams, she was struggling to adjust to her nation's misfortune.

"Why Malaysia Airlines? Why are we impacted with so much bad luck – so much tragedy that has created so much agony," she says. " The more you think about it, the worse it gets."

Ms. Gabriel sees a parallel between the loss of her friend to a foreign conflict and the ethnic and religious tensions dividing her own country.

"It's probably a good time to reconcile," she says. "Wherever there's war, whether in Gaza or Ukraine, it just shows everyone, everywhere – that we're all human beings."

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