Learn from catastrophe, Suharto tells ministers

THE BIG HAZE

President orders fire-fighting efforts to be stepped up.

PRESIDENT Suharto has told his ministers to learn from the environmental catastrophe that has hit Indonesia and the region and ensure that it does not happen again.

He also ordered them to step up efforts to fight the fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan and expressed gratitude to other countries which are helping Jakarta tackle the problem.

“The President appreciates the international assistance because this is a reflection of their understanding of the problem we are facing,” Environment Minister Sarwono Kusumaatmadja quoted him as saying after a Cabinet meeting here on Wednesday.

Mr Suharto’s comments came a few days after he apologised a second time for the fires and haze, and called on the military to boost efforts “to solve this fiery disaster”.

Observers here said that his apologies and Wednesday’s reminder to his ministers reflected his concern over the fires and the resulting haze which has hit Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand.

Foreign Minister Ali Alatas dismissed reports that the haze had become a source of conflict between Jakarta and other Asean countries.

He said: “There is a deep understanding among Asean governments on this matter although there have been some negative reports in the Thai press and criticism from small groups in Malaysia.”

He also denied that Indonesia had not been serious enough in its efforts to put out the fires causing the haze and pointed out that “the great majority of people suffering from the fires are Indonesians”. “Forest fires in Australia are much bigger than here, but because the fires do not disturb anyone, they do not become headlines in newspapers,” he told reporters before the Cabinet meeting.

He acknowledged that Jakarta needed to improve its coordination for preventing and fighting fires given that this was not the first time the problem had arisen. There were two previous haze episodes, in 1991 and 1994.

Meanwhile, Indonesian Armed Forces (Abri) chief Feisal Tanjung said that he had ordered provincial military commanders to give top priority to battling the fires and send more men where they were needed. “Even though we have worked hard to overcome this disaster, we cannot slow down on our efforts,” he said on Wednesday.

More than 50,000 troops – almost a fifth of Abri’s total strength – are said to be involved in fire-fighting efforts along with over 1,200 fire-fighters from Malaysia and specialists from other countries.

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