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Smoke signals send a warning

Sydney Morning Herald - October 1, 1997

George J. Aditjondro &150; The haze enveloping our northern neighbours should not be allowed to obscure a lesson for their ruling elites, who are largely to blame for the disaster.

South-East Asia is in the grip of its worst environmental disaster since the Vietnam War. Smoke from forest fires in Sumatra and Kalimantan has created a region-wide haze which, mixed with air pollution from the big cities, has practically choked millions of residents in Sumatra, the Malay peninsula and Borneo. People have died from the smoke, thousands have been treated in hospitals and millions other have been badly effected.

Before the monsoon rains will, it is hoped, flush the haze from the air next month, this regional disaster may already have spread to the central and northern Philippines, the Moluccas, and Papua New Guinea.

Amazingly, Malaysian Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohammad, whose country was the first hit by the haze last month, has kept silent about this man-made catastrophe. He has been busy shadow-boxing with the U.S. multibillionaire George Soros, blaming him for the financial woes of the Malaysian currency, the ringgit.

Is Mahathir's silence caused by a different sense of priorities, whereby he can simply delegate the fire-fighting business in Indonesia to his junior partners in the Malaysian Government? Or does he feel that the haze, which is nearly affecting much of the ASEAN region, has no severe economic implications for Malaysia's economy?

Certainly, the tourism business in Malaysia is being effected by the haze, with travel agents discouraging potential customers from flying to Langkawi and other tourist resorts. BHP and other Australian companies have also advised their personnel to take a break &150; and inhale some fresh air &150; Down Under.

By focusing the media's attention &150; and Matathir is an expert in that field &150; on George Soros and the "decadent West", he is actually covering up the fact that some of the economic interests of the ASEAN ruling elites have become an ecological time bomb. With their logging concessions, timber estates feeding paper and pulp factories, oil palm and rubber plantations, as well as peat and coal mines, these business interests collectively contribute to the current environmental disaster, by reducing Sumatra and Kalimantan's forest cover and increasing the inflamable biomass in this dry season.

For instance, Malaysia's "sugar king," Robert Kuok, is a co-shareholder with the young Indonesian businessman, Hashim Djojohadikusumo, and his sister-in-law, Titiek Prabowo, in a 44,000 hectares oil palm plantation in South Sumatra. Titiek, by the way, is President Soeharto's second daughter and wife of the rising army general Prabowo Subianto.

In Sarawak, business cronies of the Soeharto family, such as the Raja Garuda Mas and Sinar Mas Groups, are involved in timber, pulp, and plantation projects with some very well-connected Malaysian conglomerates such as Ekran Berhad, whose Bakun Dam project has recently been shelved, and Guthrie, the Anglo-Malaysian rubber plantation company.

Mahathir's own son, Mirzan, and Soeharto's son, Bambang Trihatmodjo, are business partners of Malaysia's Berjaya Group. Together with the Suharto family's Musa Group, Berjaya has been accused by environmental groups in the Americas of destroying the rainforests of Suriname and Guyana.

Environmentalists constitute an additional sore point for Mahathir: he has often accused Malaysian environmentalists of being "Western lackeys," who wanted to halt Malaysia's economic growth by opposing tropical deforestation and defending indigenous cultures in Sarawak.

Now, the warnings of many ASEAN environmentalists have proven to be true. After the 1992 and 1994 fire forests in Kalimantan and Sumatra, they had warned Indonesia and other ASEAN countries that the region might be enveloped by a "veil of smoke" if the rate of tropical deforestation in this region were not slowed.

Even back in 1983, when Friends of the Earth Malaysia was holding an Asia-Pacific conference on natural resources destruction in Penang, similar warnings had already been expressed.

Yet in 1987, when Mahathir cracked down on more than 100 social activists, many Malaysian environmentalists were also arrested and detained for months, without fair trial. One of them, Harrison Ngau, is an Iban Dayak intellectual who later served in the Sarawak Parliament as an Independent and strongly campaigned against the logging of the Penan people's forests as well as against the Bakun Dam.

It is crucial that ASEAN's ruling elites recognize the role of their home-grown environmental movements can play. As with canaries in the coal mines, these movements, which include many indigenous activists, are early warning systems against economic development boomeranging back on the welfare of the region.