No quick dousing of haze woes despite early ASEAN meet

Southeast Asian nations gathering to discuss the annual shroud of hazardous smog that blights the region are unlikely to find any immediate solutions, despite a meeting to address the issue being brought forward by a month to Monday.

Officials from five ASEAN member countries that form the so-called "haze" committee are scheduled to hold two-day talks over Indonesian forest fires that sent clouds of smoke into Malaysia and Singapore last month before environment ministers head into a showdown Wednesday.

But leaders of the two affected nations, which said they were subjected to life-threatening levels of pollution, hold little hope of a significant outcome.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong admitted in early July the forest fires in Indonesia would take "a very long time" to eradicate because of Indonesia's vast size.

"I know that there will be a spirit of cooperation but I think solving the haze issue will take a very long time, with the best will in the world," he said.

Malaysia's environment minister Palanivel Govindasamy refused to be drawn on immediate solutions to the haze which sent pollution levels to a 16-year high, forcing a state of emergency in two southern districts.

"Our job is to work closely with Indonesia and our ASEAN partners on the haze meeting. Once an agreement is reached we can go forward," he told AFP after stressing "long-term solutions" would be the focus of the meeting.

Formally known as the Ministerial Steering Committee (MSC) Meeting on Transboundary Haze Pollution, the three nations along with Brunei and Thailand have met on 14 previous occasions since 2006, but have little to show for it.

The main obstacle appears to be internal Indonesian politics, as slash-and-burn remains the cheapest -- albeit illegal -- way to clear land for agriculture.

The government has sought parliament's approval to ratify a 2002 pact on haze pollution which has been signed by all its ASEAN partners but the proposal was rejected in 2008.

Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said in June the treaty had been resubmitted to the current legislature, although no timeline for ratification was given.

Singapore and Malaysia have demanded Indonesia punish those behind the blazes, but Jakarta has hit back, saying fires have also been set in plantations owned by their neighbours, especially Malaysian palm oil firms.

Indonesian police said Friday they were investigating fires found in a concession held by the local subsidiary of Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur Kepong, which last month denied allegations of using slash-and-burn methods.

The haze has been a bone of contention in ASEAN for nearly two decades, with the worst haze crisis in 1997-1998 estimated to have cost the region $9 billion.