Indonesia says it’s not to blame for Malaysian haze

JAKARTA: Haze that has blanketed parts of Malaysia and forced the closure of schools came from forest fires in that country, and not from Indonesia, the government in Jakarta said on Wednesday.
Authorities in the Malaysian state of Sarawak on Borneo island were forced to close more than 400 schools after air pollution reached unhealthy levels as a result of haze blamed on forest fires in Indonesia, Malaysian media reported.
But Indonesia’s Forestry Ministry said satellite images taken last week indicated the presence of forest fires in Malaysia.
“There has been a sharp increase in hot spots in parts of South-East Asia, not only in Indonesia but especially in the Malay Peninsula and parts of Vietnam,” the ministry said in a statement on its website.
There were 1,423 potential fires registered on the Malaysian peninsula on September 7, an increase from 1,038 the previous day, the ministry said, adding that was also a spike in the numbers in Sarawak.
Indonesian Environment Forestry Minister Siti Nurbaya Bakar accused Malaysia of not being transparent about its own forest fires.
“I will send a letter to the Malaysian ambassador, I think they should correct their data,” she was quoted assaying by
Yeo Bee Yin, Malaysia’s environment minister, said she and other officials met staff at the Indonesian embassy on Tuesday to discuss the issue.
“Malaysia reiterates its concern on the impact of persistent trans-boundary haze to the Malaysian public and its offer to assist Indonesia in extinguishing the raging forest fires in Kalimantan and Sumatra,” she said on Facebook.
Indonesia “is coordinating with relevant institutions to ensure concerted actions are taken to address the root cause of the problem,” she added.
Indonesia’s National Disaster Management Agency (BNPB) said fires in Indonesia have destroyed more than 328,000 hectares of plantation and forest areas across the country, mainly on Sumatra and Borneo island.
More than 3,600 potential fires have been detected in six provinces on the two islands, BNPB spokesman Agus Wibowo said.
“There have been many outbreaks of fires during the current dry season,” Agus said.
The education office in Riau on Sumatra has urged schools to send pupils home if they deem air quality to be unhealthy, while clinics reported an increase in the number of patients seeking treatment for respiratory problems, according to local media.
National police spokesman Dedi Prasetyo said at least 175 people and four companies had been named as suspects in connection with the forest and plantation fires.
Forest fires are an annual hazard in Indonesia, and the resulting haze often affects neighbouring Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand, driving air pollution to hazardous levels.
A study by researchers from Harvard and Columbia universities found that more than 100,000 people in South-East Asia may have died prematurely in 2015 as a result of forest fires in Indonesia.
At least 25 people were killed in the 2015 fires, which caused economic losses estimated at $16 billion.
Meanwhile, thousands of Indonesians prayed for rain in haze-hit towns on the islands of Sumatra and Borneo on Wednesday, as forest fires raged at the height of the dry season, the state Antara news agency reported.
Fires have burnt through parts of Sumatra and Borneo island for more than a month and the government has sent 9,000 military, police and disaster agency personnel to fight the flames.
Indonesia’s neighbours regularly complain about smog caused by its forest blazes, which are often started to clear land for palm oil and pulp plantations.