A haze has fallen over East Asia.
The haze is partly literal. Over the last month, raging fires have consumed over two million acres of Indonesia. The fires have produced a fog of dust and soot so thick that 20 million Southeast Asians are breathing pollution equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day. The fog has blanketed Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and parts of Thailand and the Philippines. Poor visibility due to the fog was cited as the primary cause of the recent Garuda Indonesia plane crash which killed all 234 people on board, and an Indonesian police helicopter crash which killed four. All Indonesian airports were closed, and the vital tourism industry shrank to virtually nothing for a month.
The fog, diplomatically being called a "haze" in political circles, has apparently been affecting every living thing in the region, from the smallest children right up to the top political leaders attempting to negotiate the crisis. When asked at a news conference in Tokyo about the cause of the fires, Indonesian Finance Minister Hartarto opined, "The cause is El Nino, which has created dry forest beds that burn quickly." Hartarto, apparently ascribing the spark that started the blaze to spontaneous combustion, ignored the actual cause of the inferno -- companies who clear the land for industrial use through widespread slashing and burning. Don Henry, head of the World Wildlife Fund's Global Forest Program, said that "much of the blame for the current crisis should rest at the feet of timber barons and plantation owners...who have systematically cleared and degraded these vast, diverse rain forests." Until recently, the Indonesian government, more concerned with development than environment, looked the other way during the slash and burn campaigns that are destroying Indonesia's forest faster than the Brazilian rainforest.
Despite Hartarto's insistence that Indonesians are innocent victims of vicious, evil weather patterns, the Indonesian government has retained a little sense, and revoked the licenses of over thirty companies for their illegal practices. Furthermore, Indonesia has diverted its army from quelling political protests to help fight the fires. At Indonesia's request, the United States, several European and ASEAN countries, and Japan have sent monetary and technical assistance, as well as fire-fighting equipment. The best assistance, however, comes from the seasonal rains, which have just started to fall, and are starting to extinguish the blazes.
The lasting effects of the haze, however, have permeated other nations of Southeast Asia, and seriously addled some of its denizens. In particular, Malaysian Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir bin Mohamad continues to behave in a manner which, if we were generous, we could ascribe to the effects of breathing smog for a month. A few months ago, the Malaysian currency collapsed, falling as much as 26% against the dollar, mostly due to shaky fiscal policy and the aftershocks of Thailand's currency devaluation. Mahathir, however, ascribed responsibility for the mess to "rogue speculators," particularly singling out US financier George Soros, calling him a "moron." Mahathir further suggested that currency trading was "immoral," and on October 1, he argued that there should be tighter regulation, if not a total ban, on foreign exchange. In less than two hours, the currency fell 4% to a new low.
In the United States, a simple comment from a key economic figure on "irrational exuberance" or "unsustainable growth" can send the US stock markets plunging. What did Mahathir, the powerful leader of an economically volatile nation, think would happen when he declared that he wanted to kick out foreign investors? Foreign confidence dropped, and so did foreign investment. In a nation that relies so heavily on foreign capital, that is bad news, and bad economic policy. Yale School of Management Professor David DeRosa said that the region's currency crisis may linger indefinitely unless their governments vow not to impose curbs on foreign exchange and trade. "The only thing that's going to bring Asia out of this is if [governments] promise not to interfere with exchange rates and markets." George Soros didn't bother with this sort of fancy academic analysis, and just labeled Mahathir a "menace to his own country."
Mahathir promptly did what many leaders throughout history have done in a financial crisis: he blamed the Jews. He claimed that "recent speculative attacks on the ringgit currency could have been the work of Jews," and again singled out Soros. He later "explained" his remarks, blaming the media for misinterpreting him. In his clarification, he said, "I merely stated that incidentally this person (U.S. financier George Soros) is a Jew and incidentally we are Moslems," and then followed up with "We cannot make such wild accusations...they will twist our arms." Apparently, the "they" doing the arm-twisting are not the Jews after all, though. Perhaps they are El Nino. Anyway, the clarification was almost worse than the original comment, and the ringgit fell again.
The haze covering Asia's leadership last week was not limited to Southeast Asia. In North Korea, Kim Jong Il was coronated in an inaugural celebration lasting for days, and costing a lot of cash that North Korea really could have used elsewhere. Two months ago, I related the fears of UNICEF that 80,000 children were in "imminent peril" of starvation, and up to 5 million people could starve to death. The potentiality has become a reality. North Korean sources themselves are claiming that over a million people have already died of starvation this year. The US-based charity organization World Vision commissioned a secret investigation, and has released a report stating that the death toll may already be as high as 3 million people. While those in the cities danced the night away under military supervision, those in the country continued to celebrate their new leader's ascension by starving to death.
According to Jasper Becker of the South China Morning Post, the North Korean government has told its people that the South Koreans are offering poisoned grain. North Koreans are forced to attend daily political indoctrination sessions, even though most schools and factories are closed. And Kim has promised his people that a victorious unification with South Korea is imminent. One former soldier was quoted as saying that Kim told them "5 million people should strap dynamite to their bodies and surge across the border as human bombs...when they conquer South Korea, there will be enough grain for everyone." Kim Jong Il has told his people that China was an "evil capitalist place." If that's not a hazy vision of the world, nothing is.
Although the rains have started to put out the fires blazing in Indonesia, the end to the haze clouding the minds of some Asian political leaders is nowhere in sight. What logic does one use to argue with a powerful leader who refuses to place blame on the companies that he regulates? What can one say to convince an increasingly renegade Islamic leader that the Jews are not out to ruin his country? How can we address a humanitarian crisis when those responsible refuse aid? It is a hazy time, indeed, and not even Asia's legendary monsoons can wash away problems like these.