August 14, 2005 in Nation/World

As haze clears, Malaysia vents anger at neighbor

Vijay Joshi Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

A villager walks Saturday past a smoldering field lighted for land-clearing in Minas, Riau province, Sumatra, Indonesia. Palm oil farmers on Indonesia’s Sumatra island say they’ve been clearing land by burning tall grass, shrubs and trees for years.
(Full-size photo)

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Malaysians saw a clear and sunny sky Saturday for the first time in days as a hazardous haze dissipated, allowing the government to lift an emergency order.

But anger mounted against Indonesia for failing to control forest fires causing the widespread haze, which has forced the closure of schools and workplaces and dramatically increased respiratory ailments.

The New Straits Times newspaper reported Saturday that seven elderly people who died in recent days may have been victims of the haze, the worst Malaysia has faced in years. However, doctors said it was too early to attribute the deaths to pollution.

“Enough is Enough, Indonesia,” screamed the headline of a commentary in the Star newspaper by its deputy editor, Wong Chun Wai.

The haze, which appeared on Aug. 2, has been caused by fires on Indonesia’s Sumatra island – across a narrow strip of sea from Malaysia – where farmers, plantation owners and miners clear land during dry weather. It’s an annual occurrence and Malaysia has often complained that Indonesia does little to prevent it.

“Let’s be clear about this … Malaysians are fed up with having to put up with this annual problem, and this time many of us think it has gone too far,” Wong wrote.

“Indonesia has to wake up to the fact that the forest fires have become a (regional) problem, full stop. Let’s end this annual ritual once and for all with serious enforcement.”

About 50 members of the opposition Democratic Action Party demonstrated noisily outside the Indonesian Embassy in the main city of Kuala Lumpur on Friday, demanding compensation from Jakarta.

“We are breathing in poison every day. Things have never been this bad,” DAP Secretary-General Lim Guan Eng said.

The yellowish opaque haze reached its peak on Thursday when pollution levels exceeded hazardous levels over the Klang Valley, comprising Kuala Lumpur, the administrative capital Putrajaya, major harbor Port Klang and other cities.

An emergency declared in Port Klang and Kuala Selangor, a tourist spot, was lifted Saturday when the air pollution index dipped below the hazard level of 300, the national Bernama news agency said.

Visibility dramatically improved Saturday after air cleared overnight because of shifting winds. But the respite is “temporary,” said Wong Teck Kiong of the Malaysian Meteorological Department. “It will definitely be back if the wind direction changes again,” he said.

Malaysia has set up a team of 100 firefighters and 25 disaster management experts to send to Sumatra to help fight the fires. But Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, while saying he welcomed cooperation from his neighbor, has yet to give a green light.

Up to 5,000 acres of land was burning in Riau province on Sumatra alone, but only 400 people were fighting the fires, most using buckets.

The 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Indonesia is a member, urged Jakarta to take up the group’s offer of firefighting equipment and manpower.

“Indonesia is saying they have already mobilized domestic fire resources,” ASEAN Secretary General Ong Keng Yong told the Associated Press. “What we are saying is that more is needed to put out the fires.”

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