Tuesday 2 July 2013

Asean reaffirms commitment to fight haze

Senior officials directed to consolidate initiatives, propose preventive steps
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 1 Jul 2013

ASEAN yesterday showed its resolve to tackle the haze that has choked the region in recent weeks, by directing its senior officials to both consolidate current initiatives and recommend steps to prevent a recurrence.

A joint communique issued after the 10 foreign ministers met here also said there would be a progress report on these efforts to top leaders at the next ASEAN summit in October.

ASEAN also reaffirmed its commitment to establish effective monitoring, rapid response and firefighting systems. It called on countries which have not ratified a 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution - Indonesia is the only one - to do so "expeditiously".

The consensus was worked out by foreign ministers from Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia during an informal meeting last Saturday, and agreed to by the rest during yesterday's ASEAN Ministerial Meeting.

Last Saturday's meeting, which involved the three countries worst hit by the haze, took place at the suggestion of Singapore's Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam. He said the haze paragraph in the communique focuses on "the importance of putting out the fires, of monitoring, verifying to prevent recurrences in the future".

Details have yet to be worked out but Singapore has emphasised as recently as a week ago that the long-term solution is for Indonesian farmers to adopt a more sustainable method of clearing plantations.

While it may not be possible to totally stop poor farmers from slash-and-burn practices, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong said on Facebook that it "should be easy" to prevent commercial plantation owners from doing so next year.

"With satellite technology, new laws if necessary, and political will, smoking guns can be identified, confiscated and made to pay if they are fired," he wrote, on a day when the Pollutant Standards Index in Singapore fell to its lowest level in a fortnight.

Separately, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia had also agreed on a trilateral process where officials will look at what is happening on the ground and make recommendations on the way forward. These officials could come from the foreign affairs and environment ministries, and Indonesia's forestry ministry. The group will also give an update at the Asean summit.

Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said it was good to have an outcome that recognises the haze as an issue that must be addressed at the national level, and in synergy with regional efforts.

Asked if Singapore's objectives had been achieved, Mr Shanmugam said: "What you really want is for the entire region to be free of haze, and that will involve actions over a period of time."

The challenge would be in implementation but "I would say our views as to how Asean needs to deal with it have come true".

Meanwhile, a spokesman for Indonesia's National Disaster Mitigation Agency said the number of hot spots has fallen from a peak of 265 last Monday to one last Saturday.

ESM Goh also thanked Indonesia's President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for showing will, graciousness and dignified statesmanship in dealing with the haze.

"This is appreciated, in contrast with the boorish remarks of some of his ministers," he added.

ESM Goh thanks SBY for efforts to tackle haze problem
TODAY, 1 Jul 2013

Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong yesterday thanked Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono for showing “will, graciousness and dignified statesmanship” in dealing with the haze problem.

Writing on Facebook, Mr Goh noted that the number of hot spots in Sumatra had dropped and the Pollutant Standards Index reading was in the moderate range.

He attributed the improvement in the haze situation to “rain, wind direction change and the Indonesian President’s directive to his ministers to put out the many fires”.

Mr Goh added that Mr Yudhoyono’s efforts were “appreciated, in contrast with the boorish remarks of some of his ministers”.

Going forward, Mr Goh reiterated that “prevention is better than cure”. “It may not be possible to totally stop poor farmers from their slash-and-burn practice but it should be easy to prevent commercial plantation owners from doing so,” he said.

“With satellite technology, new laws if necessary and political will, smoking guns can be identified, confiscated and made to pay if they are fired.”

Asean 'back on track' to fight haze
All 10 members on board as part of solution: Jakarta
By Leonard Lim, The Straits Times, 3 Jul 2013

ASEAN is back on track to tackle the haze issue with all 10 members on board as part of the solution, Indonesia's Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa told The Straits Times yesterday at the close of meetings with his counterparts.

He praised the Asean spirit and pointed to good "building blocks" that have been put in place to tackle the air pollution which plagues the region around this time each year. The source of the problem is the Indonesian farmers and plantation companies which resort to fire to clear their land.

In the past three weeks, the haze hit Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Brunei, and the amount of pollutants in the air rose to dangerous levels in many of these countries. But air quality has since returned to the good-to-moderate range after sustained firefighting efforts by Indonesia in the past week.

Yesterday, Dr Marty said after four days of meetings: "We're back on track in terms of all presenting themselves as part of the solution.

"It's about partnership, it's about working closely together, communicating, understanding what the problems are."

On Sunday, Asean directed its senior officials to both consolidate current initiatives to combat the haze and recommend steps to prevent a recurrence.

A joint communique issued after the 10 foreign ministers met also stated that a progress report on anti-haze efforts would be sent to the top leaders at the next Asean summit in October.

The grouping also reaffirmed its commitment to establish effective monitoring, rapid response and firefighting systems. It called on countries which have not ratified a 2002 Asean Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution - Indonesia is the only one - to do so "expeditiously".

The challenge now is in implementing what has been discussed, Singapore Foreign Minister K. Shanmugam has acknowledged. Asked when he expects to get clarity on whether Singapore-linked firms are involved in the burning - a diplomatic note was conveyed to Indonesia a week ago - he said he is still waiting for Indonesia to respond.

"The Indonesians have said that they are investigating, and they are not sure whether any Singapore companies are involved," he said yesterday.

Since the weekend, there has been a significant drop in the number of hot spots in Riau, from 262 a week ago to four on Sunday.

Disaster officials say they are shifting into preventive mode, to respond faster and put out the fires before they spread out of control.

Tackling transboundary issues such as the haze involved "a lot of painstaking and consistent effort", Dr Marty said, and required work at the national, regional and international level.

"Thankfully, after those efforts, we are beginning to see results on the ground," he added.

Environmental politics, diplomacy and stability
By Yang Razali Kassim, Published The Straits Times, 2 Jul 2013

IF INDONESIA'S President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's unilateral apology last week to Singapore and Malaysia over the haze came as a surprise, the domestic criticism he provoked for doing so was equally unexpected. Fortunately for Asean, the regional foreign ministers' meeting that was coming up in Brunei around the same time saw environmental politics shifting quickly to become environmental diplomacy.

The upshot: an agreement on how to prevent the haze problem from recurring - plus a big hint to Indonesia to start ratifying a 2002 regional haze agreement it had signed but not ratified for far too long.

For the cynics of Asean, the Brunei solution over the weekend may not be good enough. But the haze problem has sharpened the awareness of how environmental issues can easily trigger tensions in a region already saddled with many other challenges. The ensuing disputes between Indonesia and its neighbours have led to more awareness and an acceptance among Asean states that the region's haze problem constitutes its so-called non-traditional security.

The haze episode began around June 20, when the Singapore skies were enveloped with thick smoke caused by forest fires in Riau, Sumatra. It quickly became the worst haze since 1997, reaching at one point a hazardous level of 401 on Singapore's Pollutant Standards Index. While Singapore scrambled into defensive mode, not much trouble-shooting was sensed on the Indonesian side at first. Indeed, the Riau province was in the news at the time for the wrong reason - its governor was detained for corruption, partly linked to an alleged abuse of deforestation permits.

As the political temperature rose, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dispatched Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan as his special envoy, bearing a personal letter to President Yudhoyono, to be followed by emergency ministerial talks.

As this was happening, Malaysia lobbied for an urgent Asean meeting in Kuala Lumpur, which it fast-tracked from August to this month. It too sent a minister and a letter of concern from Prime Minister Najib Razak to President Yudhoyono.

Against the growing regional tensions, Dr Yudhoyono called a press conference. "For what has happened," he said, "as President, I say sorry, and seek the understanding of our brothers in Singapore and Malaysia."

He also rebuked his ministers and officials for their undiplomatic remarks that aggravated the haze-related tensions.

"There are statements by several office-holders that I feel need not be put across that way. Sometimes the facts have not been checked, and that becomes an issue. This has become a concern from Singapore and Malaysia."

But the President was virtually alone; indeed, the blowback against him was swift. His statesman-like apology struck a nationalistic nerve and was almost instantly attacked by sections of Jakarta's elite, including a former vice-president, and the vocal media. A common thread in all these attacks was the view that an Indonesian apology was out of place given that Singapore- and Malaysian-linked companies could be as complicit in the Sumatran fires. In truth, some of the Singapore-linked players are Indonesian-owned. Virtually all of the companies with Sumatran plantations claim to have a zero-burning policy.

Dr Yudhoyono, nonetheless, ticked off the Riau provincial government for being slow to act, citing this as a reason he invoked his presidential authority and sent firefighting troops. Indeed, his intervention marked a significant turn of events. In so doing, he demonstrated how decisive Indonesia can be given the political will. The number of hot spots for the haze-causing forest fires consequently was reduced dramatically.

There are several conclusions or implications from this latest twist in the longstanding haze problem which has afflicted South-east Asia since 1997.

First, despite 15 years into the post-Suharto reformasi era that has been marked by political reform and desentralisasi, Indonesia is still adjusting to the downside of a decentralised political system.

Second, while power has been diffused to the provinces in a more democratic system, this has also slowed down national decision-making. At the same time, national challenges, including corruption, have also been decentralised. What used to be a problem centred in Jakarta is now spread to the regions. Nothing is more illustrative than the current detention of the Riau governor on corruption allegations partly linked to forestry permits.

Third, Indonesia's neighbours will have to live with the spillover effects of a regional giant that is still finding its feet despite more than a decade of reformation. Demokratisasi, or the democratisation of the political system, has produced a legislature or MPR (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat) that proudly defends its independence of the Executive. This is why Indonesia is the only member state that has yet to ratify the 2002 Asean Agreement on Haze - even though the Indonesian government signed the pact 11 years ago.

Fourth, it is troubling that Indonesian lawmakers, caught up in the legislative politics in Jakarta, do not seem to fathom the corrosive implications the failure to ratify the haze accord may have in the long run: It can undermine regional confidence in Indonesia's commitment to pacts, and eventually its leadership in Asean.

Fifth, environmental issues will continue to influence politics in this region. Challenges arising from climate change, such as sea-level rise and climate refugees, will get worse over time and stress intra-Asean ties.

There are two things the political elite in Jakarta must do: One, ratify the 2002 Asean Agreement on Haze without further delay. Two, reform the way the political system is governed - even if it means starting a new phase of reformasi.

Otherwise, South-east Asia will continue to face the unsettling prospect of a friendly power which is also a source of the region's future problems. Which can be just as discomforting as a less-than-friendly power that causes no trouble.

The writer is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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