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Malaysia PM turns up heat on Indonesia as Australian firm faces fires probe

Smoke emanates from an burning oil palm concession in Riau, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

  • Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak tells Indonesia to “take action” as schools across his country are shut.
  • Indonesia’s probe into an Australian plantation subsidiary continues as police expects investigators to return as soon as Tuesday.
  • Singapore’s air quality moderates but southeasterly winds push haze into Thailand.

International pressure on Indonesia to address haze pollution escalated on Monday after Malaysia’s prime minister closed thousands of schools and called on Jakarta to “take action.” Meanwhile, Indonesia’s state media reported over the weekend that police in Kalimantan are expected to return soon from a site visit to a concession managed by an Australian agribusiness.

“Only Indonesia alone can gather evidence and convict the companies concerned,” Najib Razak told Malaysia’s state news agency Bernama on Monday.

Almost 4 million Malaysian children were told to stay at home as the government closed all schools except for those in Kelantan on Monday and Tuesday. Air quality levels in Malaysia were slightly improved on Monday, however, after six districts in the country recorded “very unhealthy” air over the weekend. Data from Malaysia’s Department of the Environment showed the northwestern regions near the Thailand border struggling with “unhealthy” air at 3 p.m. local time on Monday. Some 17 areas in total were recorded as having unhealthy air.

Malaysia’s deputy minister for women, family and community development said on Sunday night that Malaysia should seek compensation from Indonesia for financial losses.

“It is ridiculous for them not to solve this problem,” Chew Mei Fun told Bernama. “I think we should ask them to compensate … Children can’t go to school. At the same time, nobody will come to visit Malaysia. Our hawkers’ businesses have also dropped by 30 percent. I think medical expenses for most people have also gone up.”

Southeasterly winds also allowed Singapore’s air quality to improve slightly on Monday, with the 24-hour PSI range edging down to a 116-138 range at 2 p.m. local time. Thailand’s Bangkok Post reported on Sunday that Hat Yai , Surat Thani, Phuket, Narathiwat, Yala and Satun were affected by haze, although air quality was recorded within safe levels.

As Indonesia’s government fielded more international criticism, its criminal probe into companies and individuals allegedly responsible also escalated after police named a subsidiary of an Australian firm among 42 firms under investigation. The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper splashed a story on Monday afternoon that PT Kayung Agro Lestari (KAL) was facing a police investigation over fires on its 18,000-hectare concession in Ketapang, West Kalimantan.

KAL is one of 15 subsidiaries registered in Indonesia under Austindo Nusantara Jaya Tbk, a diversified agribusiness whose palm oil operation is certified by the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil.

Austindo released a statement on September 22 denying responsibility for starting fires. It said a combination of high winds and dry weather had caused the blaze.

“They make the plantation vulnerable to outbreaks of fire, especially from wind-borne sparks originating in fires outside the plantation,” the company said in a statement.

Orangutans were evacuated recently from a burning area adjacent to KAL’s concession. Photo courtesy of International Animal Rescue

Indonesia’s state-owned news agency, Antara, reported on Sunday that Agus Nugroho, the West Kalimantan police detective heading up the provincial investigation, expected investigators to return from the field on Tuesday. Their report will determine whether police name individuals from three companies as suspects.

“For now the three companies are still just under the investigation process – so they have not been named suspects – because the investigating team has yet to return from the field,” Mr. Nugroho told Antara. “It could be Tuesday that they’re back.”