Indonesian President Looks to Open Neglected Papua Region

By Randy Fabi & Kanupriya Kapoor 11 June 2015

JAKARTA — Indonesian President Joko Widodo wants to open up the remote and impoverished region of Papua after decades of conflict and neglect, but will first need the backing of the military, parliament and separatists.

Palace officials said the president plans to free dozens of political prisoners, launch a slew of infrastructure projects, and confront the serious unemployment problem in the easternmost province of the Indonesian archipelago.

“The new approach will be more humane, with the aim of developing Papua more fairly,” Mualimin Abdi, director of human rights for the justice ministry, told Reuters.

A small separatist movement has kept Papua under the close supervision of the military, more than 50 years after Indonesia seized control of the resource-rich area following the end of Dutch colonial rule.

Despite an abundance of forests and minerals, ordinary Papuans have seen little benefit with their schools, hospitals and infrastructure in dire straits due to rampant corruption.

Widodo has made developing Papua one of his top priorities and has already visited the region twice as president, announcing plans for a region-wide road network, fibre optic cable system, sport facilities and a major deep sea port.

Widodo’s predecessor, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, only visited Papua three times during his 10-year tenure.

Heralding a new era for peace and development, Widodo last month released five political prisoners and lifted travel restrictions for foreign journalists in Papua.

But in a clear indication of the difficult road ahead for Widodo, military chief Moeldoko quickly revised the president’s statement saying foreign journalists would still need special permits to travel there because of security concerns.

“Opening up to the media and what we are doing with the political prisoners are all aimed at eventually reducing the role of the military in Papua,” Eko Sulistyo, a member of the presidential office, told Reuters.

“It has to be done gradually.”

The president wants to free more political prisoners and plans to ask for approval from parliament, where Widodo’s party only controls a minority coalition.

Army spokesman Wuryanto said “there has to be considerations before freeing the prisoners,” but did not elaborate.

The president is also considering halting transmigration policies and introducing affirmative action for hiring indigenous Papuans in local government, which is currently dominated by migrants from Java and Sulawesi islands.

“If the approach is wrong, it’s a fine line between wanting to be part of Indonesia and becoming a freedom fighter,” Sulistyo said.