Jakarta accepts foreign help to fight raging forest fires

Jakarta accepts foreign help to fight raging forest fires
Indonesian men used a hose to put out a fire in Banyuasin, Indonesia yesterday.
PHOTO: AFP

After weeks of trying to tackle the country's forest fires on its own, Indonesia yesterday welcomed help from abroad, including from Singapore and Russia.

Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in a Facebook post last night: "Had a good discussion this evening with (Indonesia's) Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi who indicated that Indonesia will now take up our offer. Good for our countries to work together to resolve this as soon as possible."

As for the Russian offer of a Beriev Be-200, which can carry up to 37,200kg of water, it came after earlier talks had stalled.

Indonesia has been facing mounting pressure, both at home and abroad, to resolve the transboundary haze crisis, with Thailand's Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha the latest leader to demand more collective action. Parts of southern Thailand were shrouded by smoke from forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan that has already affected air quality in Singapore and parts of Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.

The haze prompted General Prayut to push for ASEAN-level efforts to tackle the decades-old issue. His call on Wednesday follows that by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Tuesday to do more.

Singapore has repeatedly said it stands ready to help but its offer was turned down until last night. Its assistance included a Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) land firefighting team, a C-130 aircraft for cloud seeding and a Chinook helicopter equipped with a water bucket for aerial firefighting.

Yesterday, Singapore's Ministry of Foreign Affairs extended another SCDF team to provide assessment and planning assistance, high-resolution satellite pictures and hot spot coordinates.

Mr Atmadji Sumarkidjo, a close aide of Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Pandjaitan, said last night Russia has offered a Beriev Be-200.

As to when the Singapore assets will be deployed, he added: "We are trying to find the right timing... The haze is thick now so they won't be effective."

It is widely recognised that President Joko Widodo's administration is already doing more than any previous government to tackle the latest haze crisis. But the high economic and human costs prompted Indonesian politicians to ask the government to do more, including accepting foreign offers of aid.

Democratic Party spokesman Imelda Sari said: "Indonesia must open up. We do not need to be embarrassed to get assistance from the neighbouring countries. This is part of the ASEAN solidarity."

Mr Mochammad Romahurmuziy, a senior leader in the United Development Party, said that "with help from neighbouring countries, we can solve it (crisis) faster".

tkchan@sph.com.sg

wahyudis@sph.com.sg

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This article was first published on Oct 8, 2015.
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