President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono said those who clear land by burning are committing crimes against humanity, causing millions of people to suffer from the haze.
His comments came as he arrived in Riau yesterday afternoon and met officials battling the disaster over the past month that continued to see pollutant levels in much of the province reach hazardous levels.
Dr Yudhoyono warned errant residents and companies that they would bear the brunt of the law if they continued to flout it, as Riau police announced they had identified 60 suspects and that the number could rise.
“In a war, soldiers who commit war crimes are immediately tried so there’s a deterrent effect and no one repeats them,” the President said, according to a statement by the National Disaster Management Agency. “In Indonesia, no one is immune from the law… This cannot be business as usual.”
Severe haze saw Dr Yudhoyono cut short his trip in Central Java and head straight to Pekanbaru to personally oversee stepped-up efforts to battle raging forest fires, including an additional armed forces brigade.
As residents cheered the first rainfall in days over Pekanbaru, however, strong winds saw Dr Yudhoyono’s flight having to be diverted to Batam temporarily.
After a closed-door meeting with governor Annas Maamun and disaster and armed forces officials, the President headed for Rimbo Panjang in the Kampar district to see the hot spots for himself.
He said he would spend two nights in Riau, and also meet plantation owners to find out about the situation on the ground first-hand.
Details were not available of whether he would return to Central Java to campaign for his Democratic Party’s candidates there, as initially planned.
Residents had mixed reactions to the visit, however.
Several readers of local news portal riauterkini.com reminded Dr Yudhoyono to look at plantation fires where companies are allegedly involved in burning, and not just those started by common farmers.
Mr Ocu Dollah urged him to go to major plantations, saying the big companies were burning hundreds of hectares.
A group of students in Pekanbaru calling themselves Masker, the people’s movement to prosecute haze crimes, demanded that Dr Yudhoyono revoke the licences of errant plantation companies and impose a moratorium on new licences.
They also demanded that the government compensate residents for the haze for the next 10 years.
The haze is likely to affect campaigning in Riau for the April 9 general election, and the Prosperous Justice Party announced that it would cancel all outdoor campaign activity.