The Jakarta Post
On the 52nd anniversary of ASEAN’s founding on Thursday, President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo unveiled the towering new building of the ASEAN Secretariat in Jakarta.
His message was clear: The new building was there to help empower ASEAN to become more responsive to the swift pace of change, so that it can remain relevant in meeting the aspirations of its peoples and work more effectively toward its goals.
Jokowi’s message, conveyed ahead of a high-profile trip to Malaysia and Singapore, was timely given the geopolitical nuances of regional peace and security; but it risks ringing hollow in the face of a reemerging transboundary haze crisis that looks to be emanating from the archipelago.
Officials in Aceh and Riau provinces have warned of deteriorating public health and increasing haze-induced respiratory ailments. Six provinces have declared wildfire emergencies, including those bordering on Malaysia and Singapore, raising the specter of the devastating forest and land fires of 2015.
Just two days ago, the President rightly expressed embarrassment about his upcoming visit to the neighboring ASEAN countries, demanding vigilance from his Cabinet, the security apparatus and regional administration leaders in addressing the recurring haze problem.
But the haze issue itself is not officially on the agenda of the President when he meets his counterparts in Malaysia and Singapore, according to the Foreign Ministry. That would be an opportunity missed for Jokowi to engage in some preventive diplomacy, and address the burning questions of the crisis.
In 2013, on the back of complaints by our neighbors about the uncontrollable forest and peatland fires in Riau, then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono offered an apology and took it upon himself to personally oversee the preparations of a dedicated task force and discussed contingencies with the Malaysian and Singaporean sides. He had to apologize again in 2015.
Jokowi himself had to cut short his maiden visit to the United States when the 2015 haze crisis erupted, flying in to South Sumatra to attend to deteriorating circumstances on the ground. The fires had raged through 2.6 million hectares of land in Sumatra and Kalimantan, with a study blaming the fires for the premature death of 100,000 people. The Supreme Court found Jokowi among those liable for the fires costing the country more than US$16 billion.
Since then, Indonesia has garnered praise for its handling of the haze problem, setting up tougher rules and protections to prevent disasters of the 2015 magnitude.
And while some experts have dismissed the notion that Indonesia is responsible for the creeping haze that has reportedly blanketed Singapore and parts of Malaysia in recent weeks, a diplomatic gesture by the President during his visits there would help alleviate public pressure.
Ultimately, decision makers must be wary of complacency setting in following prior success of mitigation campaigns, and refocus efforts to ensure that people in areas affected by haze experience as little as possible disruption to their lives.
One ASEAN foreign minister has said that Indonesian officials should always remember that the haze most heavily impacts those who live right under their noses, and worry less about those that are noisy across the pond.