Indonesia investigates on haze-causing suspects

JAKARTA: Indonesia has ordered four companies to suspend operations for causing forest fires which have sent smoke across a swathe of Southeast Asia, an environment ministry official said on Tuesday.

“These suspensions will be in effect until the criminal proceedings undertaken by the police are finished,” said secretary general at environment ministry Bambang Hendroyono. 

Three plantation companies have had their permits frozen and one forestry company has had its license revoked, he added. 

Indonesia has strict plantation laws. Those found guilty of clearing land by burning can be fined up to 10 billion rupiah (US$700,000), and up to 10 years in jail.

President Joko Widodo declared a state of emergency in Riau province, one of the worst affected areas. 

Air quality index readings have been as high as 983 in Pekanbaru, Sumatra -- anything over 200 is unhealthy -- while numbers are fluctuating between unhealthy and very unhealthy in Singapore and Malaysia, depending on the wind.

More than 3,000 personnel, including military and police, are working to put out fires and investigate suspects involved in starting the burning. Indonesian aircraft are water bombing and "cloud seeding" by using chemicals to induce rain.

The ongoing El Nino has exacerbated the problem, creating extra dry conditions that fan the flames.

Thick smoke caused by forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan islands has blanketed the region for the past month.

Residents have been recommended to stay indoors and more than 2,000 schools have closed across Indonesia and Malaysia, affecting 1.5 million students and their parents.

Smoke emanates from spongy and dry peat as the fire smoulders underground. It's definitely not wise to go near or step on the peat soil as the fire smoulders beneath unless you want to be roasted alive. 

My colleagues at sister publication Berita Harian and New Straits Times Press photo department flew over and experienced first-hand "what it was like to be roasted alive" as they report live from Riau peat fires, or Ground Zero. At one point, their legs accidentally sank into the searing dry peat. It was painful and suffocating but they fulfilled their duties as journalists.

Over at managed peat of oil palm estates that had been compacted by heavy machinery and moistened by a maze of water-filled canals, there was no fire. My colleagues noticed the stark difference in the temperature and solid texture of managed peat. They feet did not sink into the soil.

As the investigations in Indonesia ensue, may logical reasoning prevail over wrongful blame that are heavily laced with ulterior motives.