As Widodo deploys police and army against brush fires in Sumatra, the first arrests follow
by Mathias Hariyadi
The Indonesian president visits the regions affected by fires with police and army chiefs. He announces an iron fist policy and deploys a task force to address the emergency. Seven local companies and 140 people are involved. The first business licences are revoked.

Jakarta (AsiaNews) – Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo has sent in the country’s army and police to fight the ongoing brush fires emergency, warning that exemplary punishment would be meted out against those responsible. Meanwhile, smoke is covering large swathes of the country and causing major respiratory problems in people.

Unlike other Indonesian president, including his immediate predecessor Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who did little or nothing to tackle the annual emergency, the current head of state seems bent on using an iron fist. In fact, the first arrests have already been made.

Local sources note that Jokowi has no ties or connection with the local mafias and companies involved in this practice and seems sincere when he says he wants to punish corrupt officials, crooked business people, unscrupulous farmers and arsonists.

For weeks, a thick blanket of smoke caused by brush fires set off by arsonists or farmers to clear fields have covered large parts of the country, causing serious health problems to residents.

As a result, Malaysian authorities have ordered schools to close temporarily in Kuala Lumpur and surrounding areas. In Singapore too, the authorities have urged the public to "avoid outdoor activities."

Environmentalists and activists slam palm oil companies, in particular illegal planters, as the main culprits for starting fires.

The brush fire emergency hit the country last year as well, with 30,000 people affected by severe respiratory problems due to smoke, this according to data from the Pkanbaru Department of Health.

President Jokowi had already visited the affected areas on a previous occasion. During this visit, his second, he brought along the chiefs of the national police and military to show he meant business.

Virtually absent during the president’s first visit, journalists and media flocked to the area because of the police and army presence. This was reflected in the greater coverage and visibility given to the story in the country’s print, electronic and online media.

Analysts and local political experts have noted that the current president, Yudhoyono Widodo, has taken a different approach from that of his predecessor, especially in fighting sectarian intolerance and brush fires.

During his visit to South Sumatra, the president brought along not only the police and military chiefs, but also ministers and other top government officials, including the Environment minister who cancelled a trip to Europe at the last minute. He also set the guidelines for the task force involved in the operation.

The first results were not long in coming. As Police Chief General Badrotin Haiti indicated, law enforcement agencies have already launched an investigation and made some arrests in connection with the fires, including some principals and beneficiaries.

Investigators already have their eyes on seven companies - three in South Sumatra, one in Riau, and three more in the province of Central Kalimantan – for a total of 140 people involved at various levels.

Another 20 companies are under scrutiny and more arrests could occur in the coming hours.

Likewise, some licences have been revoked and certain companies have had their names added to a black list of criminal enterprises.

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