Indonesia — Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apologized for the smoke haze that has choked parts of neighboring Malaysia and Singapore, and agreed to hold a regional meeting to tackle forest fires in the country.
“Under the name of the Indonesian government, I should apologize to the neighboring countries over this incident,” Yudhoyono told reporters in Jakarta today. “Clearly, it’s not something we want.”
The apology follows calls by Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Malaysia’s opposition Democratic Action Party that Indonesia must deal with the forest fires. Lee had written to Yudhoyono expressing his “disappointment” over the recurring problem, Singapore’s foreign ministry said in a statement today.
Smoke from forest fires in Malaysia and Indonesia clouds the region annually as farmers on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra clear land by burning trees and bushes. The haze choked much of Southeast Asia in 1997 and 1998, causing economic losses of almost $9 billion as travelers shunned the region and health-care costs increased.
“Law enforcement is needed,” said Jhonny S. Mundung, executive director of the Indonesian Forum for the Environment, a non-government organization. “We must catch the big companies.”
In the May to September period, some 180,000 hectares of land was burned, Mundung said citing data complied by his organization.
`Clearly a Crime’
“Violations by plantation companies are still happening in the form of illegal land clearance,” Yudhoyono said. “This is clearly a crime.”
Yudhoyono said the military and police will be deployed and the government will rent a Russian aircraft to drop water bombs. He pledged to “use every existing resource” to fight the fires.
Singapore had invited environment ministers from Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand to meet in the city-state on Oct. 13 to discuss ways to tackle the haze, as air quality in the region reached unhealthy levels. That meeting will now be held in Indonesia, Yudhoyono said today.
Indonesia prefers to hold the meeting closer to affected areas such as Pekanbaru city in Riau province, Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said in Jakarta today.
“We commend Indonesia for taking responsibility and agreeing to convene this meeting,” Singapore’s foreign ministry said in a second statement issued today. “Singapore was happy to agree to shift the meeting to Indonesia. As the forest fires are on Indonesian territories, this is a more appropriate venue.”
Malaysia’s government today renewed a warning on low visibility in the Strait of Malacca, one of the world’s busiest sea lanes, and advised the public to stay indoors as the air quality deteriorated.
Singapore’s Lee “stated that Indonesia needed to deal with the problem in a timely and effective manner, so that investor confidence in Indonesia, Indonesia’s international standing and Asean’s credibility would not be affected,” the foreign ministry said in its earlier statement. Asean is the acronym for the 10- member Association of Southeast Asian nations.
Indonesia should immediately ratify a Southeast Asian Transboundary Haze agreement that will allow Asean countries to cooperate to prevent and extinguish forest fires, the Democratic Action Party, which leads the opposition in Malaysia’s federal parliament, said yesterday.
“The fact that the agreement hasn’t been ratified should not be perceived as an obstacle” to cooperation in fighting the haze, Indonesia’s Wirajuda said today.
Hard to Contain
The forest fires are difficult to contain because they occur on peaty soil, are spread out and deep in the interior, the Indonesian embassy said in a statement yesterday. Efforts to create rain through cloud seeding have also been hampered because the clouds haven’t been big enough, it had said.
Indonesia has sent more than 1,000 fire fighters to the affected areas to douse the fires, the embassy said. It is also taking offenders responsible for the fires to court, it said.
The purpose of the regional meeting “is to see how Singapore and other affected countries can help Indonesia prevent a recurrence of the problem in the future and take immediate action to mitigate the fires that are currently causing the haze,” Singapore’s foreign ministry said. “This will take not just a regional but international effort.”