There are two crucial points about the current haze originating from deliberate forest fires in Indonesian Sumatra and Kalimantan that are worth pondering. First, it is the worst annual effusion of bad air in almost 20 years there and in Malaysia, Singapore and parts of Thailand and the Philippines. By the Indonesian government's own reckoning, the damage done by the forest fires and haze have cost the country between $30 billion and $40 billion. Despite that, there is insufficient direct, mutual and effective discussion between Indonesia and its affected neighbours which is uncharacteristic of Asean's oft-lauded spirit of cooperation and consensus .
The second worry is the political haze in certain quarters of Jakarta despite the worsening of the environmental haze gripping towns and cities in the region. It has been unusually persistent this year, going far beyond the one month of smoke referred to by Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla in his snarky dismissal of complaints by Asean victims. This is not the first time he has argued disingenuously that thanks is owed to Indonesia for bestowing fresh air to regional neighbours for the rest of the year. Requiring victims to show gratitude to perpetrators is a logic that would confound even the most cynical of diplomats. Besides, these victims include many citizens of Indonesia too.
Experts are forecasting the haze, which began in mid-August, to last until November, perhaps even longer, depending on the winds and the whim of El Nino. More people will suffer health problems, business losses will mount, and tourists will shun a region that is blanketed by haze day and night. The absence of a convincing strategy to deal with such hazards might make even investors with big risk appetites nervous. Indonesian President Joko Widodo's assurance of a permanent solution in three years demonstrates his willingness to tackle a problem that his countrymen have not solved over the past 40 years. However, experts doubt if that can be achieved quickly given the widespread malpractices there.
International observers would wonder why Indonesia has chosen to largely decline offers of assistance from Malaysia and Singapore and has decided to tackle the problem alone. Pride and sovereignty are understandable when it regards itself as the natural leader of Asean, having the largest economy in South-east Asia and the biggest population. But it is also a nation of extremes - urbanites in bustling cities and hunter-gatherers in remote areas; Big Agri exploiting massive concessions and slash-and-burn cultivators eking out a living from the land. Given the scale of the haze problem and the limits of the resources it can muster, Jakarta should not overlook substantive dialogue with its Asean partners to help douse the fires and get to the root of this annual scourge.