KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia -- Malaysia on Monday shut most schools nationwide for two days to protect children from a thick, noxious haze caused by smoke from burning forests in neighboring Indonesia.
The haze, which has shrouded parts of Malaysia and Singapore for about a month, also spread to Thailand on Monday, the first time it has reached hazardous levels so far north. It highlights the regional nature of a problem that's being blamed on Indonesia's inability to prevent big plantation companies from burning forests to clear land for new trees.
The air pollutant index hit the hazardous level in Shah Alam, the capital of Malaysia's central Selangor state, and was very unhealthy in many other areas. That prompted authorities to order the closure of 7,000 schools on Monday and Tuesday, even though the situation eased early Monday.
The Air Pollutant Index in Shah Alam dropped to 95, from 308 early Sunday. A reading of below 50 is good, 51-100 is moderate, 101-200 is unhealthy, 201-300 is very unhealthy and above 300 is hazardous. However, 11 areas, mostly in northern states, were in the unhealthy range, with a station in Penang island recording the worst level of 164.
The poor visibility forced several airports in Malaysia to be closed for hours on Sunday. A popular annual marathon in Kuala Lumpur was also canceled.
Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi said Indonesia's efforts to crack down on the sources of open burning by farmers were not enough. He said Indonesia should seek more help from its Southeast Asian neighbors to tackle the haze, which is an annual problem.
The forest fires that cause the haze have been an annual occurrence since the late 1990s. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has announced stricter punishment for those engaged in open burning, but said his government would need three years to solve the problem. The offenders are mostly palm oil plantations, as well as pulp and paper companies.
Malaysia's national news agency, Bernama, quoted Zahid as saying that Malaysia welcomes the measures announced by Widodo, but that "three years is too long."
"We hope its commitment is not only on paper or mere statements pleasant to the ears, but through implementation which could end all haze problems," Zahid said.
Malaysia's Meteorological Department, however, reported good news, forecasting that the haze would clear from Saturday with the start of the monsoon season.
On Monday, haze was also reported in the southern Thai provinces of Songkhla, Trang, Yala and Pattani, which are closest to Malaysia.
Wijarn Simachaya, director general of Thailand's Pollution Control Department, told The Associated Press that "the situation is getting worse."
He said it was the first time this year that the pollution from haze had reached the 171 mark in Songkhla. "This is the level that could have bad effect on health," he said. The previous worst level was 136.
"We didn't think it would be bad this year, but it is," he said. "We warn vulnerable people such as children, elderly and people with illnesses not to go to open areas or wear masks when they do."