President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo’s government has often argued that far eastern Papua province was long neglected, while officials pushed for a massive infrastructure strategy to connect the jungle-covered region as a way to winning the hearts and minds of locals.
Now, that thinking is being questioned after separatist rebels attacked workers who were building roads and bridges in Nduga regency as part of the Trans-Papua Highway project, killing at least 20 people, including a soldier on Dec. 2.
The killings, whose details remain sketchy, represented the single most-serious attack by the separatist rebels in many years.
“I don’t think Jokowi asked the West Papuans what they wanted, which was a mistake,” said Damien Kingsbury, a professor at Australia’s Deakin University who specializes in politics and security in Southeast Asia.
“Had he done so, they would probably have answered they do not want their environment destroyed by new roads and bridges, or the influx of outsiders that implies,” he told BenarNews.
Jokowi’s approach to Papua had failed after the government reneged on its promise to open up Papua to outsiders, including to foreign journalists, according to Kingsbury.
The Trans-Papua Highway stretches more than 4,300 km (2,687 miles) from Sorong, the largest city in West Papua province, to Merauke regency, and is scheduled to be completed in 2019, a presidential election year. It is part of the Jokowi administration’s drive to improve infrastructure in the Papua region, where road networks are limited.
In response to the killings, authorities have sent more about 300 police and soldiers to Nduga to hunt the suspects.
A defiant Jokowi has vowed to go ahead with the infrastructure projects in Papua despite the setback.
“We will never be afraid. This (attack) has only strengthened our resolve to carry on with our great task of developing the land of Papua,” he told reporters at the State Palace in Jakarta on Wednesday. “There’s no place for armed criminal groups in Papua and throughout the country.”
Papua is one of the archipelago’s poorest regions despite its rich natural resources. The area where the violence took place was at about 1,500 meters (about 5,000 feet) above sea level.
Jokowi has visited Papua at least eight times since taking office in 2014, a sign that he is paying close attention to the country’s easternmost region.
He has repeatedly emphasized that lower transportation costs due to better infrastructure will make things more affordable in Papua, which makes up the western half of the island of New Guinea.
“While his attention has been appreciated, Jokowi has also been accused of having a poor attitude to human rights abuses and state violence in the region,” Arie Ruhyanto, a doctoral researcher at the University of Birmingham, said in a piece published on Conversation.com on Wednesday.
“Jokowi has also focused on developing security, deploying thousands of additional soldiers to the region,” he said. “Although aimed at strengthening national defence, there are ongoing concerns about human rights abuses in the region.”
Rebels reject infrastructure projects
In a phone interview with BenarNews on Wednesday, Sebby Sanbom, a spokesman for the West Papuan National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the military wing of the Free Papua Movement, made it clear that the separatist group rejected the government’s infrastructure projects.
“This attack is a message to the colonial government of Indonesia that we are fighting for the freedom of the West Papua Republic. We are not asking for the Trans-Papua roads or other development,” Sebby said.
Sebby has said that those killed during what he described as an “exchange of fire” were not civilian workers, but soldiers from the army’s engineering detachment.
He said the group that carried out the attack was led by Egianus Kogoya, the local leader of TPNPB.
On Thursday, Sebby told the Jawa Pos news website that the insurgent group had 29 regional commands and 2,500 personnel.
He described the separatist army as “world class.”
“They (the Indonesian military) may have more personnel, but nature is with us. Forests and valleys are with us and we will not surrender,” Sebby told Jawa Pos.
In a phone interview with the Associated Press on Friday, Sebby demanded that the government hold negotiations on self-determination, and he warned of more conflicts.
“Trans-Papua road projects are being carried out by Indonesian military and that is a risk they must bear,” Sebby said. “We want them to know that we don’t need development, what we want is independence.”