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Southeast Asia chokes on graft

Thick gray smoke has again settled over Singapore and parts of Malaysia, blown in from illegal land-clearing fires in Indonesia’s Riau province.

Riau has ‘an alarming record of local leaders dishing out permits to companies to clear its forests over the past decade,’ the Singapore Straits Times said. And a lot of the permits appear to be the result of graft.

The governor of Riau, Rusli Zainal, was arrested for corruption on June 14.

‘There is a link between rampant corruption and today’s forest fires,’ Emerson Yuntho of Indonesia Corruption Watch told the Straits Times.

Why are this year’s fires bigger than usual?

The granting of logging permits spikes ahead of elections, Yuntho said, so local politicians can raise campaign funds.

There’s a gubernatorial election in October in Riau and national parliamentary elections next April, the Straits Times said.

Helena Varkkey of the University of Malaya said ‘corruption and patronage linkages’ allow companies to obtain permits to burn scrub near valuable peatlands despite laws forbidding it. And companies that grease enough palms are protected even after the fires blow smoke into nearby cities, she said.

Indonesia claims some of the offending companies are based in Singapore or Malaysia.

Last week, a senior Indonesian politician said Singaporeans complaining about the air quality were acting ‘like children.’ Agung Laksono, who’s in charge of Indonesia’s anti-haze efforts, said the fires are ‘not what Indonesians want, it’s nature.’

Eduardo Araral of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore told the Straits Times: ‘When enforcement is not credible and has no deterrent effect because of corruption, concession owners and their agents have the incentive to routinely flout regulations, and no amount of legislation or treaties would be effective under these circumstances.’

Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has warned that the haze could last weeks or months.

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