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Haze: Does Indonesia Really Listen?

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FATHRUDDIN Hamat described it best – it was like being in a black-and-white movie.

The 21-year-old Malaysian student at the Islamic University of Sultan Syarif Kasim in Pekanbaru was talking about the haze situation there last week.

“Everything was blanketed by the haze. The visibility was so low that when we passed the stadium, we couldn’t even see it from the road,” he told The Star.

For 14-year-old Aiman Akhmal Suhaimi from Malacca, who is taking up religious studies in Riau, it was a scary experience as he could hardly see anything – not even the cars parked just outside where he is staying in Pekanbaru.

Many of them fell sick with sore throat, fever, flu and cough.

Fathruddin and Aiman were among the hundreds of Malaysian students evacuated by the Govern­ment last week when the API reading reached 1,000.

It has been the same story year in and out since 1997.

No thanks to uncontrolled forest fires in Indonesia, haze has become an annual event in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei – an export from Indonesia that we do not welcome.

And it’s the same recycled excuse given by Indonesia – that foreign companies, from Malaysia and Singapore, are responsible and that action is being taken.

After 16 years, in 2013, the Indonesian government finally took action against companies blamed for igniting fires that resulted in a massive haze.

One Malaysian plantation company was taken to court for violating environmental protection and management law.

A company executive was slapped with a year’s jail for causing forest fires in Indonesia which led to the severe haze in Malaysia and Singa­pore.

Indonesia has in the past apologised to its neighbours for the haze.

More recently, it was an image to remember as President Joko Widodo walked through the burning area in a South Sumatra district for a first-hand look at forest fires early this month when six provinces – Riau, Jambi and South Sumatra in Sumatra island and three others in Kalimantan – were put on emergency alert status as the number of hot spots shot up.

And yet, it doesn’t seem to stop the land-burning activities.

Just what does it take to stop all this? There must be a long-term solution.

Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, during his working trip to Jakarta last week, said Malaysia and Indonesia will come up with a long-term solution to the haze problem.

Natural Resources and Envi­ronment Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Junaidi Tuanku Jaafar was supposed to leave for Jakarta this Friday to finalise a Memorandum of Under­standing to pave the way for wider cooperation to handle the issue, but it has been postponed.

This is the second postponement for the ministerial level meeting.

The MoU contains four steps to overcome haze – law enforcement, zero burning practice for the Indonesians, peat soil management and collaboration between the two countries whenever fires break out.

While the MoU, targeted to be signed before the end of the year, is the way to go, one cannot help but be sceptical.

It took Indonesia more than 10 years to ratify the Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution. Jakarta only ratified in September last year.

Why did it take them so long to do so, when it was signed in 2002?

The agreement, among others, meant that parties agreed to cooperate in developing and implementing measures to prevent and monitor transboundary haze pollution as a result of land and forest fires which should be mitigated, and to control sources of fires, including by the identification of fires, development of monitoring, assessment and early warning systems, exchange of information and technology, and the provision of mutual assistance.

Singapore, another major recipient of Indonesia’s haze, in the midst of its general election two weeks ago, offered help in fighting the fires, but Indonesia’s Environment and Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar declined, saying that Indonesia was handling the situation on its own.

Somehow, one feels that Indonesia is too arrogant and suspicious of any help offered by their neighbours.

Even when Malaysia sent 1,200 firemen in 1997 to help put out the fires, there were reports that Malaysian navy ships that ferried our men were inspected by the Indonesian military to make sure no armed forces personnel were on board.

During their 28-day fire fighting operation there, our firemen were constantly being watched by the Indonesian military.

Indonesian politicians can say that their people are the first casualty of the haze, but will they understand that our people are suffering too?

The political will must be there to stop this problem once and for all. Words are not enough.

Otherwise that exasperated feeling will recur among Malaysians, same time next year. – The Star

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