Indonesia Sends Army to Fight Fires as Najib Protests Haze

Indonesia is sending more than 3,000 soldiers, marines and air force officers to fight forest fires in Sumatra that have been blamed for heavy haze over neighboring Malaysia and Singapore.

Nearly half of those would be sent to Riau province today, Syamsul Ma’arif, head of Indonesia’s disaster management agency, told reporters in Jakarta. The Indonesian Palm Oil Association is also preparing 26 fire-fighting units to put out fires surrounding its members’ plantations, Secretary General Joko Supriyono said in Jakarta.

The moves were announced after Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak said he would send a protest letter to Indonesia demanding more action. Indonesia President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has apologized to his neighbors and pledged to work on solving the issue, as finger pointing continues over responsibility.

“Starting today and tomorrow, the units will be deployed to help put out the fire,” Supriyono told reporters. “Fire can just spread by strong winds in the dry season.”

Smog has drifted north along Malaysia’s western coast after pollution reached a record in Singapore last week. Some areas of Malaysia were classed as very unhealthy or hazardous today as Kuala Lumpur’s 88-floor twin towers remained obscured.

Indonesia Talks

Malaysia wants Indonesia’s cooperation to enforce more effective measures and punish those responsible for setting illegal fires for land clearance, Najib said yesterday in Kuala Lumpur. G. Palanivel, Malaysia’s minister for natural resources and the environment, is due in Jakarta later this week for talks.

Malaysia plans to offer Indonesia aircraft that can be used as water bombers, said Najib. Singapore has also offered help. Indonesia’s foreign ministry is also trying to borrow planes from Russia, Canada, Australia or South Korea, Ma’arif said.

“The question of who owns the plantations is not the issue here but when something of this magnitude happens, there should be no concern of whether the plantations are owned by Indonesia, Malaysia or Singapore but rather action taken against those responsible,” Najib said, according to state news service Bernama. The premier’s comments were confirmed by his office.

Singapore and Malaysia have been plagued for decades by periodic haze from forest fires on Indonesia’s eastern Sumatra island, with regular spats over responsibility even as all three have strong economic links. The number of hotspots in Riau province increased to 265 from 154 yesterday, according to the disaster management agency.

Singapore “wholeheartedly” accepts Yudhoyono’s apology, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in a statement today.

Solution Sought

“We need to put in place a permanent solution to prevent this problem from recurring annually,” said Lee. “Singapore stands ready to work very closely with Indonesia, Malaysia and others in the region to bring an end to the haze-related problems which have plagued our region.”

Malaysia will host a meeting of the sub-regional ministerial steering committee on trans-boundary haze in Kuala Lumpur on July 17, Palanivel said in a statement today. The meeting was originally scheduled for Aug. 20-21.

Fire-fighting continued on Sumatra today with a third water-bombing helicopter deployed alongside two planes used to create artificial rain. The airport in Sumatra’s Pekanbaru may have hourly shutdowns depending on weather conditions due to the haze, Bambang Ervan, a spokesman at Indonesia’s Ministry of Transport, said by phone today.

Hazardous Haze

Malaysia’s Air Pollutant Index reached 484 as of 11 a.m. today in Port Klang on the country’s western coast, and 333 in part of Perak, according to the Department of Environment’s website. Levels above 300 are deemed hazardous. The smog was classed as very unhealthy in parts of Selangor, which surrounds the capital.

The smog forced the opening ceremony for Malaysia’s 13th Parliament to be held indoors today, the first time in history that has happened. The customary inspection of the guard-of-honor by the Malaysian King was held at the banquet hall of the parliament building.

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.

Timber Firms

The Pollutant Standards Index in Singapore stood at 74 at 4 p.m. today, 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 News they have a zero-burning policy.

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

Chee requested 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 yesterday.

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.

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