Anger mounts as Malaysia chokes under haze

Anger over Indonesia’s inability to douse forest fires that have smothered parts of Malaysia with a dangerous haze mounted on Friday as the crisis worsened in the capital, Kuala Lumpur.

The opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP) held a protest at the Indonesian embassy in pollution-shrouded Kuala Lumpur, handing out paper face masks and calling for compensation.

“The Indonesian government must know the Malaysian people are angry,” DAP secretary general Lim Guan Eng said, adding that these are “the sentiments of all Malaysians”.

About 60 party members and supporters unfurled banners proclaiming: “We condemn Indonesia for not stopping the haze” and “Indonesia must pay compensation because of the haze”.

Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said a team of 100 firefighters is waiting for permission to head to the Indonesian island of Sumatra to help extinguish the fires and eliminate the clouds of smoke engulfing the west coast of Malaysia.

He said Indonesia has accepted the offer of help but that “bureaucratic” hurdles are holding up the firefighters’ departure.

Malaysia declared a state of emergency on Thursday in two towns on the west coast that have borne the brunt of the smoke from Sumatra, separated from peninsular Malaysia by the narrow Malacca Strait.

The air-pollution index (API) on Thursday reached 529 in Port Klang, a major shipping centre, and 531 in Kuala Selangor. An API above 300 is considered hazardous and 500 triggers a state of emergency.

By Friday morning, the haze had cleared slightly on the west coast, but in Kuala Lumpur the index jumped from 321 to 365, shrouding the city in a white mist reeking of wood smoke.

Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono responded to the tensions on Friday by pledging to take action against those responsible for the hundreds of fires raging on Sumatra, where farmers use fire to clear land.

His spokesperson Dino Patti Jalal said the president told Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in a phone call “that the government would do all it can and utilise local and national apparatuses to put out the forest fires”.

Malaysia’s government has said it will not take a confrontational approach with the Indonesian government because of the greater need to preserve their troubled relationship.

It has also conceded that Malaysian-owned palm oil and rubber plantations on Sumatra are at least partly responsible for the pollution crisis.

Abdullah said on Thursday that Plantations and Commodities Minister Peter Chin will meet with those responsible and call on them to stop the fires.

Indonesian Forestry Minister Malam Sambat Kaban and Malaysian Environment Minister Adenan Satem met in the city of Medan on Sumatra on Thursday to discuss the crisis.

The two sides agreed to cooperate on preventing people using fire to clear land and to carry out cloud-seeding to induce rain.

The DAP said in a protest letter to the Indonesian embassy that the last serious haze in Southeast Asia, in 1997 and 1998, had caused $9-billion in damage to the region.

“While the Malaysian government has not demanded compensation out of the need to preserve good neighbourly relations, we believe that the majority of Malaysians are angry,” it said.

Malaysia’s media also said the country is running out of patience over Indonesian inaction, and said many families are deserting the capital for less-polluted locations, including Singapore in the south.

“Malaysians are a tolerant lot. But there is a limit to even this legendary patience when the consequences for health, the economy and quality of life are grave,” said a comment piece by Sarban Singh in the New Straits Times.

Singh noted that Indonesia has still not ratified an Association of South-East Asian Nations agreement on controlling haze, which was proposed after the last crisis in 1997 and 1998 that enveloped parts of the region for months.—Sapa-AFP