Indonesia Apologizes as Fires Cause Pollution in Region

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono apologized to his neighbors after illegal forest fires in Indonesia shrouded parts of the region with hazardous haze, prompting Malaysia to call for a meeting of Southeast Asian ministers.

Smog has drifted north along Malaysia’s western coast after air pollution reached a record in Singapore last week. Some areas were officially classed as “very unhealthy” or “hazardous” today as Kuala Lumpur’s 88-floor twin towers disappeared from view.

“As the president, I apologize and ask for the understanding of our friends in Singapore and Malaysia,” Yudhoyono said in a press briefing in Jakarta yesterday. “We will continue to take responsibility to deal with what’s happening right now.”

Singapore and Malaysia have been plagued for decades by periodic haze from forest fires on Indonesia’s Sumatra island, with regular spats over responsibility. The number of hotspots in Riau province increased to 154 on June 23 from 92 the day before, according to the country’s disaster management agency.

Najib Razak will send an official letter to Yudhoyono seeking cooperation from Indonesia to enforce more effective measures to punish those responsible for causing the haze, Bernama reported, citing the Malaysian prime minister yesterday.

Action Call

“Malaysian laws cannot be applied in Indonesia,” G. Palanivel, Malaysia’s Minister for Natural Resources and Environment, told reporters in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. “It is for them to stop this and take action and not us.”

Malaysia is offering to host a meeting of the sub-regional ministerial steering committee on trans-boundary haze in Kuala Lumpur next week, Palanivel said, adding Singapore was supportive of such a summit. The meeting was originally scheduled for Aug. 20-21. The government is awaiting a response from Indonesia, Thailand and Brunei, he said. Singapore’s National Environment Agency didn’t immediately respond to queries.

Indonesia plans to add ground forces to fight fires and increase its ability to extinguish them from the air, Yudhoyono said. The cost should not be an issue, he said.

Fire-fighting continued on Sumatra yesterday with a third water-bombing helicopter deployed, operating alongside two planes used to create artificial rain, Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, a spokesman at Indonesia’s disaster management agency, said by text message. Cloud-seeding in Malaysia has stalled due to dry weather and a lack of clouds.

Pollutant Index

“I will be meeting my Indonesian counterpart on Wednesday about the haze and propose Malaysia’s offer to do cloud seeding in the country,” Palanivel said.

Malaysia’s Air Pollutant Index reached 487 this morning in Port Klang on the country’s western coast, according to the Department of Environment’s website. Levels above 300 are deemed “hazardous.” The smog was classed as “very unhealthy,” in parts of Perak and Selangor, which surrounds the capital, as the haze drifts northwards.

Najib declared an emergency in parts of southern Johor state June 23 after the API hit levels around 750. Schools in Johor, Kuala Lumpur and other affected areas were closed yesterday and people advised to stay indoors. Pollution improved to between moderate and unhealthy yesterday in Johor, which borders Singapore.

Timber Firms

The Pollutant Standards Index in Singapore itself stood at 82 at 5 p.m. yesterday, which is within the moderate range, the National Environment Agency said on its website.

There are 17 timber firms and 15 palm oil firms, including Singapore-listed Wilmar International Ltd., Kuala Lumpur-based Sime Darby Bhd. and Singapore-based Asia Pacific Resources International Ltd., with land in areas affected by fires, T. Nirarta Samadhi, an Indonesian government spokesman, said June 21, citing data from the non-government World Resources Institute. Wilmar and Sime Darby have told Bloomberg they have a zero-burning policy.

Indonesian police arrested two farmers yesterday for illegally starting fires to clear land, Reuters reported online, citing a police spokesman.

There had been contradictory statements made by Indonesian ministers and officials on whether Singapore-linked companies were engaged in illegal land clearing practices in Indonesia, Permanent Secretary for Foreign Affairs Chee Wee Kiong said in an e-mailed statement sent by Singapore’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday.

Postponing Events

Chee requested that the Indonesian government clarify the statements or share evidence relating to any involvement by Singapore-linked companies, the ministry said in the statement.

Indonesian government officials should not name companies they suspect of having caused the fires and instead let police investigate the matter, Yudhoyono said at the press briefing.

Two Malaysian Airline System Bhd. flights from Kuala Lumpur to Kuantan were canceled June 23 due to the haze, Azmi Murad, senior general manager of operations at Malaysia Airports Bhd., said by phone yesterday, when operations were normal, he said. There were no flight cancellations at AirAsia Bhd., the budget carrier said in an e-mailed response to questions yesterday.

Malaysian Air shares closed yesterday 1.7 percent lower at 29.5 sen, Malaysia Airports dropped 0.8 percent to 6.15 ringgit and AirAsia was unchanged.

Three international-level sports events may be postponed if the haze doesn’t improve, including a five-day cycling tour, the Star reported on its website, citing Malaysia’s Youth and Sports Ministry.

Malaysia reported its worst case of haze in 1997 when the pollution reading reached 839 in Kuching in the eastern Sarawak state, prompting the government to impose a 10-day emergency, according to the Star yesterday. On peninsular Malaysia an emergency was declared in Kuala Selangor and Port Klang near the capital in 2005 when the pollution index breached 500, the Star reported.

(Updates with Malaysian prime minister’s protest letter in fifth paragraph.)
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