By NINIEK KARMINI
JAKARTA, Indonesia (AP) — Indonesian police announced on Sept. 19 that they have arrested 230 people suspected of starting some of the fires that are spreading health-damaging haze across a large part of Southeast Asia.
Among those arrested are three men who were caught while trying to clear land to plant crops in Tesso Nilo National Park, which is home to about 140 endangered wild elephants, said Dedi Prasetyo, the national police spokesman.
Those arrested could be prosecuted under an environmental protection law that provides for a maximum 10-year prison sentence for setting fires to clear land.
Indonesia’s fires are an annual problem that strains relations with neighboring countries. The smoke from the fires has blanketed parts of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, and southern Thailand in a noxious haze.
Poor visibility caused by smoke has caused delays of flights at several airports in Indonesia and Malaysia and prompted authorities to shut thousands of schools in some parts of the two countries, affecting more than 1.5 million students in Malaysia alone.
Malaysian authorities have been conducting cloud seeding operations in an attempt to clear the haze and are considering passage of a law that would penalize Malaysian plantation companies that start fires abroad.
Environment Minister Yeo Bee Yin said that a more lasting regional solution is needed.
“We face the problem every year between July and September, the worst was in 2015,’’ said Kaneungnit Srisamai of the government’s environment quality monitoring center. “We have seen less smoke in the last four years, but this year we may be facing it again due to a reduction in rainfall.’’
In addition to the arrests, Indonesian authorities have also sealed off land owned by at least 49 plantation companies in the past week for investigation after fires were found there.
The Indonesian Disaster Mitigation Agency detected 4,319 hotspots across the country on Sept. 19. It said 99 percent of the hotspots were caused by deliberately set fires.
The agency said 44 helicopters had dropped more than 71.3 million gallons of water and 163 tons of salt for cloud seeding as part of the firefighting efforts.
Indonesian authorities have deployed more than 29,000 people to fight the fires, which have razed more than 812,000 acres of land across the nation, with more than half in the provinces of Riau, Jambi, South Sumatra, West Kalimantan, Central Kalimantan and South Kalimantan.
Indonesia’s annual dry season fires were particularly disastrous in 2015, burning 10,000 square miles of land. The World Bank estimated the fires cost Indonesia $16 billion, and a Harvard and Columbia study estimated the haze hastened 100,000 deaths in the region.