Far Eastern Economic Review October 16, 1997
Trial by Fire
Smog crisis tests Asean's vaunted cooperation
By Murray Hiebert in Kuala Lumpur with John McBeth in Jakarta

T he smog sweeping across Southeast Asia from forest fires in Indonesia is clouding this year's 30th-anniversary celebrations of the regional club, Asean. Behind all the hoopla about solidarity and cooperation, the acrid air is straining the consensual style of the nine-member group, and its principle of noninterference in members' domestic affairs.

Mounting anger in Malaysia and Singapore, where the health and livelihood of millions of people are threatened, has thrust Asean into uncharted territory. The crisis is testing the skills of its leaders to set aside traditional Asean niceties and come up with measures to tackle a problem that transcends national boundaries.

The smoke choking the region has prompted unusually blunt criticism of Indonesia from Asean countries that normally treat the group's largest member with deference. In Singapore and Malaysia, officials, the media and ordinary citizens charge that Indonesia hasn't done enough to stamp out the fires, which have ravaged 750,000 hectares of forest on the islands of Borneo and Sumatra.

"The patience of Singaporeans and Malaysians is wearing thin," Singapore's normally subdued The Straits Times warned on September 30. "The cost of the haze is getting unacceptably high and it will get higher if not enough Indonesian officials act urgently, decisively."

The degree of anger in Malaysia and Singapore has forced their governments to be more critical of Jakarta. "States take notice when their own people start to ask why they don't take action against a neighbour," says Mak Joon Num, research director of the Malaysian Institute of Maritime Affairs. "It creates a clash between the notion of the sovereign state and the right of the international community."

In response to growing regional resentment, President Suharto on October 5 issued another apology to his neighbours, his second in three weeks. He also ordered the military to step up their efforts to fight the forest fires. Two days earlier, the government had revoked 151 licences of 29 plantation and timber companies for failing to present documents disproving allegations that they were responsible for starting some of the fires.

The day after Suharto's apology, seven Indonesian ministers working on the crisis appeared at a joint press briefing to explain what steps the government was taking. But neighbouring countries still aren't convinced. "Everyone is telling us something different," complains an Asean diplomat. "No one seems to be in charge."

Over the past three decades, Asean has evolved from a diverse collection of countries with deep-seated hostilities into a security grouping with a powerful voice in international affairs. But the prolonged haze--now into its third month--has confronted Asean for the first time with a serious multilateral problem.

"Asean is caught between rhetoric and reality," says Abdul Razak Baginda, head of the Malaysian Strategic Research Centre. "With the 30th anniversary we've seen a lot of talk about cooperation, but when it mattered most it didn't happen."

Smoke from Indonesian forest fires has engulfed the region before--in the early 1980s, in 1991 and again in 1994. After the 1994 episode, regional officials cobbled together an Asean Cooperation Plan on Transboundary Pollution. It outlined several proposals, including an agreement to share information and technology to prevent forest fires. But little has happened since.

"Asean cooperation in some ways is a myth," says Zakaria Ahmad, head of Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia's Strategic Studies Unit. "Where national interests converge into regional interests, you see cooperation forged. But in this case, Indonesia is dragging its feet. It is driven by big interests," he says, alluding to the companies that started many of the fires.

Notes Bruce Gale of the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy in Singapore: "Asean doesn't have a good track record of conflict-resolution among states." He points out that in disputes between Malaysia and Singapore and between Malaysia and Indonesia over the ownership of islands, the parties have turned to the World Court in The Hague for help, rather than to Asean.

Still, some recent disputes have been resolved locally. In 1992, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore cooperated to clean up an oil spill in the Strait of Malacca and established a joint body to combat piracy in their adjoining waters. Early this year, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur cooperated to repatriate thousands of illegal Indonesian workers from Malaysia. Now Malaysia is asking for monthly meetings with Indonesia to seek ways to prevent the haze from recurring when Kuala Lumpur hosts the Commonwealth Games next September.

For a longer-term solution to the smog problem, Asean needs to implement the plans the group drafted three years ago, says Singaporean international-law lecturer Simon Tay. That would be a "litmus test of how well Asean neighbours can work together," he says.

The final event of Asean's 30th-anniversary celebration is a summit scheduled for Kuala Lumpur in December to which the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea have been invited. Unless the monsoon rains intervene or Indonesia moves quickly to put out the fires, the camaraderie of the first-ever meeting of leaders from Northeast and Southeast Asia could be obscured by a cloud of smoke.