Indonesia finally accepted outside help to tackle forest fires this week, while President Jokowi sidestepped party pressure on changes to the nation's top anti-graft body, and the king of dangdut rock took another swing at politics.
Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi appealed to 'friendly' nations for help as forest and agricultural fires continued to rage in Sumatra and Kalimantan this week. Australia was among the five nations that agreed to contribute equipment and expertise to douse the fires, together with Malaysia, Singapore, Russia and China. Indonesia had previously rejected offers of help from Singapore, where haze from the fires reached hazardous air pollution levels last month. Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak demanded action earlier in the week after schools nationwide were forced to close for two days because of the pollution. Thousands of people in Singapore and Malaysia have reported haze-related illnesses, while in Sumatra, a 28-day-old infant died this week of a lung infection.
Haze is an annual problem in the region, caused by fires in Indonesia that in many cases are believed to be started intentionally as a cheap and easy way to clear land for mainly palm oil and pulp wood plantations. Much of the burned land is peatland, which emits more smoke than burning forested land and can allow fires to spread underground, making investigation of perpetrators more difficult. Frustration is growing in the region over this year's haze problem, which has been prolonged by dry El Nino weather conditions, and could prove to be the worst on record.
Following comments earlier this year by Vice President Jusuf Kalla, who criticised Indonesia's neighbours for complaining about a month of haze each year, a Singaporean website has emerged where visitors can press a button to 'thank' Indonesia for the other 11 months of clean air.
Yet in the midst of these emergency conditions, the Indonesian Government has reportedly backed the right of small palm-oil firms to continue to clear forest for plantations.
A Reuters report this week found that the Government recently lobbied major palm oil companies to make exceptions for smallholders on the 'no deforestation' pledge the companies made at last year's UN climate change summit. According to the report, officials argued that smaller companies are unable to compete with major players in the push for sustainable practices. The case was made despite the fact that many of the forest fires still burning in Sumatra and Kalimantan are suspected to have been started by smallholders using 'slash and burn' methods to clear forest for plantations.
Meanwhile, President Jokowi this week avoided the thorny issue of pending changes to a law on the national anti-graft body. The President and the House of Representatives agreed to postpone discussions on amending the law on the Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK). The proposed amendments would impose a time limit on the KPK's operations and restrict the types of cases it can assess, among other changes.
The move is seen as the latest attack on the respected institution, which has come under fire during Jokowi's first year as president. Starting from the KPK's involvement in vetting a candidate widely seen as Megawati's pick for police chief back in January, the institution has been embattled by police accusations of corruption, bringing it to near collapse. Jokowi rejected the changes to the KPK law when they were first proposed in June, but the idea has since re-emerged on the House agenda at the insistence of his party, led by Megawati. Not wanting to come to loggerheads with his party, Jokowi this time has dodged the issue, passed the buck to the House of Representatives to decide, and finally agreed to postpone debate until the next sitting in November. It remains to be seen whether he'll have a better solution to the problem the next time it arises.
Also in Jakarta, would-be presidential candidate Rhoma Irama launched his own political party this week, explaining the party's vision and mission through song (see video). The 1970s icon known as the 'king' of dangdut for his contribution to the popular local brand of Indian-infused pop was rejected as a potential presidential candidate for the moderate Islamic National Awakening Party (PKB) last year when the party backed Jokowi's ticket instead. Rhoma has tried his luck with other parties before finally deciding to establish his own. He performed with his original band lineup at the party launch on Wednesday.
The name of the new party is Islam Damai Aman —the Safe and Peaceful Islamic Party — or Idaman for short, meaning 'dream'. To match the sentimental name, the logo looks as if it were designed by a teenaged girl on Instagram: two hands forming a heart, which Rhoma says represents his goal to 'achieve greatness with love'. But it's likely voters in the capital haven't forgotten Rhoma's rejection of Basuki 'Ahok' Tjahaja Purnama as vice governor, and later governor of Jakarta, on the basis of Ahok's Christian religion and Chinese ethnicity.