Suharto apologises for the worsening haze condition

PRESIDENT Suharto yesterday apologised for the worsening haze condition from forest fires in Indonesia that is affecting neighbouring countries.

He said that Indonesia was doing its “level best” to prevent and overcome the fires in the country’s largest provinces but “the sheer vastness of our bushes and forests” as well as a prolonged drought had created unsurmountable obstacles in bringing the blazes under control.

“To the communities of neighbouring countries who have been disturbed by the fires in our territory, Indonesia offers its most sincere apologies,” he said at the opening of the Asean Environment Ministers’ Meeting here.

Delegates attending the three-day meeting said that they were surprised by the President’s apology.

Singapore Environment Minister Yeo Cheow Tong said the Indonesian leader was sincere in his efforts to protect the environment in the region. “We welcome and appreciate deeply this gesture coming from a person of his position,” he said.

Malaysia’s Science, Technology and Environment Minister Datuk Law Hieng Ding echoed the same sentiments, saying that “his apology would mean a lot for Malaysians”.

Fires in Central and West Kalimantan have caused haze problems in Malaysia while forest fires in the Sumatran provinces of Riau and Jambi have clouded skies over Singapore.

In his speech yesterday, Mr Suharto said that the meeting was taking place at a time when the world was confronting various natural disasters – fires, floods and typhoons.

“The Asean region is not spared from the threat of such disasters,” he said, adding that Indonesia was hardest hit by the fires raging in its largest provinces.

Reports estimate that more than 300,000 hectares of forest have been destroyed by the fire.

Mr Suharto said Indonesia appreciated the efforts of Asean countries to work together in resolving the current problem. He stressed, however, that each country had its own views and standards in tackling the situation.

His comments came against a background of criticism from within and outside the country that the government was not doing enough to deal with the haze problem.

Datuk Law, however, stressed yesterday that it was counter-productive to blame Indonesia for the haze problem.

“We all face the same problem and we will work together to face this situation,” he told The Straits Times, adding that Malaysia hoped to conclude a Memorandum of Understanding with Indonesia on the issue.

Indonesia’s Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja stressed that it was a misperception that Jakarta was doing very little to tackle the problem. “I have teams out there in the affected provinces working round the clock to monitor and put out the fires,” he said.

He reiterated that the government would also strike hard against forestry and plantation companies that violated a ban on clearing land by setting forests on fire. So far, 50 companies have been issued with warning and another 15 have had their licences revoked.

His comments come as the government declared the haze stemming from the forest and land fires a disaster requiring immediate action. It sent a letter to provincial governors in Sumatra and Kalimantan, asking them to step up their vigilance in dealing with forest fires.

It ordered the establishment of 24-hour command posts in all provinces on the two islands to monitor the situation and to contain the problem.

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