INDONESIA - It was probably coincidental that days after Riau Governor Rusli Zainal was arrested for corruption on June 14, forest fires in his province saw pollutant levels over the region rise to record highs.
However, it is no coincidence that more rampant graft has contributed to the severe haze now blanketing Riau, Singapore and parts of Malaysia, observers and watchdogs pointed out.
Part of the charges against Rusli, in office since 2003, involve the dishing out of illegal logging permits in Pelalawan regency.
While it is unclear whether forest fires occurred in these areas, observers said Riau has an alarming record of local leaders dishing out permits to companies to clear its forests over the past decade.
"There is a link between rampant corruption and today's forest fires," Mr Emerson Yuntho of graft monitoring outfit Indonesia Corruption Watch told The Straits Times.
"And the giving of permits tends to spike ahead of elections," he added, citing the need to fund campaigns.
Riau will see a gubernatorial election in October, and national parliamentary elections are to take place in April next year.
Anti-graft activists said there was a surge in the number of suspect concessions for mining and plantations across the country being approved ahead of the 2009 elections, and warned of another repeat.
Therein lies the potential for further disaster.
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Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: AFP, Reuters )
|Smoke from hotspots blanket Riau province
Click on thumbnail to view (Photos: Hang Nadim Meteorological Station, ST, Reuters, AFP, Sarawak Conservation Alliance for Natural Environment)