Yudhoyono defends apology on haze

INDONESIA - President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono has rebutted critics at home who said his apology on Monday night to Singapore and Malaysia over the haze was excessive.

"The fact is the haze was from Indonesia, so we take responsibility, and saying sorry in that context, to me, is not excessive," he told reporters on Wednesday.

"At the same time, I said that what was happening was not intentional, and Indonesia had no intention to trouble its neighbours."

His unexpected apology had attracted, in the past 48 hours, criticism from various quarters. The Muslim-leaning Republika daily said yesterday he had "hurt the people", and the often critical Media Indonesia daily said he had "dragged down national pride".

A good number of politicians and the public had also been critical of the move, with some saying he had caved in to external pressure and the apology had shown Indonesia up as weak.

On Wednesday, Dr Yudhoyono said he had been following conversations on social media and was concerned that SMSes and press questions to ministers had misinterpreted his remarks.

A minister had also received "weird" media questions wondering whether the stepped-up response to the haze - more than 3,000 staff were sent to Riau in the past two days - was the result of pressure from Singapore or another country, he noted.

"No one instructed me as president of a sovereign country," he told reporters at Jakarta's Halim Perdanakusuma Airbase.

"What I have done in the past two to three days - massive handling, deploying more officers - is fully my decision," he said.

"The thick haze has also inconvenienced our brothers in Riau."

Dr Yudhoyono stressed that the haze would have no impact on Indonesia's bargaining position on other issues, whether territorial disputes with Malaysia or the return of ill-gotten assets of corrupt Indonesians in Singapore.

"A sovereign country need not be afraid of any other country, not of Malaysia, not of Singapore," he said. "On sovereignty and other matters, there can be no compromise."

He said Indonesia would firmly defend Ambalat, an oil-rich block in the Sulawesi Sea that Malaysia also claims, and ensure that Indonesian workers in Malaysia are protected and given their rights.

On Singapore, he noted that "in general, our relations are very good and mutually beneficial, but Indonesia will continue to ensure the extradition treaty with Singapore can be enforced".

Both countries signed the extradition treaty, with a defence cooperation agreement, in 2007, but Indonesia's Parliament has refused to ratify them.

Dr Yudhoyono hoped bilateral ties with both its neighbours would also be safeguarded in a mutually respectful Asean spirit.

He said he scanned the international media early every morning, and felt Singapore media reporting on the issue had been "excessive" and "put Indonesia's image in a bad light globally".

This year's haze, he noted, was exceptionally bad due to extreme weather, and Indonesia was doing all it could to manage the disaster and provide relief for its people and its neighbours.

His comments come as parts of Malaysia got a respite from the haze as rain fell for a second day. Cloud-seeding and water-bombing operations also continued over parts of Riau.

Malaysian Environment Minister G. Palanivel arrived in Jakarta on Wednesday afternoon and would meet his counterpart on Friday.

zakirh@sph.com.sg

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