Thursday, September 19, 2013

Indonesia and Malaysia's Bilateral Haze Agreement

Last week it was reported that Indonesia and Malaysia had agreed on a bilateral deal to address the haze.  The Edge Review reported that the two countries signed an agreement to exchange digital-geo-referenced maps to show when and where the forest fires started, as well as information on who started the fires.  This information could be used by the Malaysian authorities to pursue legal action against plantation owners, many of whom are Malaysian companies. 

If correct and if implemented fully, this would represent a major step towards controlling the annual haze, which intensified this year. However, the difficulty from the ASEAN point of view was that the two ASEAN members also agreed to keep the shared information confidential: the data would not be shared with other ASEAN members nor with the ASEAN Secretariat:

A source complained that any favourable treatment given to big Malaysian companies by Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur would be at the expense of millions in the region forced to live with the thick smog.  "Singapore has said this does fall short of what it's been trying to achieve," the source said, adding that the new Asean secretary-general from Vietnam, Le Luong Minh, is also angered by the deal.

The problem is that the bilateral deal’s confidentiality requirement undermines the 2002 ASEAN Agreement on Transboundary Haze Pollution.  That agreement calls for the similar sharing of information, but on a bloc-wide basis, through the ASEAN Secretariat.  Indonesia is the last remaining ASEAN member not to ratify the agreement, which is a fundamental defect in the agreement since Indonesia is also the source of the haze.

Indonesia had vowed to ratify the haze agreement this year, but according to the Edge Review,  Indonesia backed out after the bilateral deal became known to the other ASEAN members. 

To residents in Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore who suffer from the haze, whether a bilateral deal or an ASEAN solution ends the haze may not matter. A bilateral deal offers a more rapid solution than Indonesia’s ratifying the ASEAN haze agreement this year, a somewhat remote prospect given the upcoming Indonesian elections and the end of the Yudhoyono presidency.  Implementation of the haze agreement on a bloc-wide basis will also take time.

However, the fear is that without the involvement of the ASEAN institutions and the other ASEAN members, a bilateral deal may either be ineffective or be inconsistently applied.  The bilateral deal also undermines the ASEAN institutions, e.g., the haze agreement and the ASEAN Secretariat, on perhaps the most visible (literally) problem currently affecting the ASEAN Socio-Cultural Community. 

The real question, thus, is whether the Indonesia-Malaysia bilateral deal ultimately is an intermediate step towards an effective ASEAN-centered solution through full implementation of the ASEAN haze agreement, or not.  If so, then the tradeoff of confidentiality for expediency may be acceptable. If not, then it will become yet another sad chapter in the ASEAN haze agreement.  The proof will be in the skies.