Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Environmental politics, diplomacy and stability

Jul 02, 2013


By Yang Razali Kassim For The Straits Times

IF INDONESIA'S President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono's unilateral apology last week to Singapore and Malaysia over the haze came as a surprise, the domestic criticism he provoked for doing so was equally unexpected. Fortunately for Asean, the regional foreign ministers' meeting that was coming up in Brunei around the same time saw environmental politics shifting quickly to become environmental diplomacy.

The upshot: an agreement on how to prevent the haze problem from recurring - plus a big hint to Indonesia to start ratifying a 2002 regional haze agreement it had signed but not ratified for far too long.

For the cynics of Asean, the Brunei solution over the weekend may not be good enough. But the haze problem has sharpened the awareness of how environmental issues can easily trigger tensions in a region already saddled with many other challenges. The ensuing disputes between Indonesia and its neighbours have led to more awareness and an acceptance among Asean states that the region's haze problem constitutes its so-called non-traditional security.

The haze episode began around June 20, when the Singapore skies were enveloped with thick smoke caused by forest fires in Riau, Sumatra. It quickly became the worst haze since 1997, reaching at one point a hazardous level of 401 on Singapore's Pollutant Standards Index. While Singapore scrambled into defensive mode, not much trouble-shooting was sensed on the Indonesian side at first. Indeed, the Riau province was in the news at the time for the wrong reason - its governor was detained for corruption, partly linked to an alleged abuse of deforestation permits.

As the political temperature rose, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong dispatched Environment Minister Vivian Balakrishnan as his special envoy, bearing a personal letter to President Yudhoyono, to be followed by emergency ministerial talks.

As this was happening, Malaysia lobbied for an urgent Asean meeting in Kuala Lumpur, which it fast-tracked from August to this month. It too sent a minister and a letter of concern from Prime Minister Najib Razak to President Yudhoyono.

Against the growing regional tensions, Dr Yudhoyono called a press conference. "For what has happened," he said, "as President, I say sorry, and seek the understanding of our brothers in Singapore and Malaysia."

He also rebuked his ministers and officials for their undiplomatic remarks that aggravated the haze-related tensions.

"There are statements by several office-holders that I feel need not be put across that way. Sometimes the facts have not been checked, and that becomes an issue. This has become a concern from Singapore and Malaysia."

But the President was virtually alone; indeed, the blowback against him was swift. His statesman-like apology struck a nationalistic nerve and was almost instantly attacked by sections of Jakarta's elite, including a former vice-president, and the vocal media. A common thread in all these attacks was the view that an Indonesian apology was out of place given that Singapore- and Malaysian-linked companies could be as complicit in the Sumatran fires. In truth, some of the Singapore-linked players are Indonesian-owned. Virtually all of the companies with Sumatran plantations claim to have a zero-burning policy.

Dr Yudhoyono, nonetheless, ticked off the Riau provincial government for being slow to act, citing this as a reason he invoked his presidential authority and sent firefighting troops. Indeed, his intervention marked a significant turn of events. In so doing, he demonstrated how decisive Indonesia can be given the political will. The number of hot spots for the haze-causing forest fires consequently was reduced dramatically.

There are several conclusions or implications from this latest twist in the longstanding haze problem which has afflicted South-east Asia since 1997.

First, despite 15 years into the post-Suharto reformasi era that has been marked by political reform and desentralisasi, Indonesia is still adjusting to the downside of a decentralised political system.

Second, while power has been diffused to the provinces in a more democratic system, this has also slowed down national decision-making. At the same time, national challenges, including corruption, have also been decentralised. What used to be a problem centred in Jakarta is now spread to the regions. Nothing is more illustrative than the current detention of the Riau governor on corruption allegations partly linked to forestry permits.

Third, Indonesia's neighbours will have to live with the spillover effects of a regional giant that is still finding its feet despite more than a decade of reformation. Demokratisasi, or the democratisation of the political system, has produced a legislature or MPR (Majelis Permusyawaratan Rakyat) that proudly defends its independence of the Executive. This is why Indonesia is the only member state that has yet to ratify the 2002 Asean Agreement on Haze - even though the Indonesian government signed the pact 11 years ago.

Fourth, it is troubling that Indonesian lawmakers, caught up in the legislative politics in Jakarta, do not seem to fathom the corrosive implications the failure to ratify the haze accord may have in the long run: It can undermine regional confidence in Indonesia's commitment to pacts, and eventually its leadership in Asean.

Fifth, environmental issues will continue to influence politics in this region. Challenges arising from climate change, such as sea-level rise and climate refugees, will get worse over time and stress intra-Asean ties.

There are two things the political elite in Jakarta must do: One, ratify the 2002 Asean Agreement on Haze without further delay. Two, reform the way the political system is governed - even if it means starting a new phase of reformasi.

Otherwise, South-east Asia will continue to face the unsettling prospect of a friendly power which is also a source of the region's future problems. Which can be just as discomforting as a less-than-friendly power that causes no trouble.

The writer is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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