Indonesia President Jokowi signals reconciliation with restive Papua province

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (2nd R) shakes hands with freed Papuan political prisoner Kimanus Wenda (2nd L) while four others Jefrai Murib (L) Apotnalogolik Lokobal (3rd L) Numbungga Telenggen (4th L) and Linus Hiluka (3rd R) looks on during a
Indonesia's President Joko Widodo (2nd R) shakes hands with freed Papuan political prisoner Kimanus Wenda (2nd L) while four others Jefrai Murib (L) Apotnalogolik Lokobal (3rd L) Numbungga Telenggen (4th L) and Linus Hiluka (3rd R) looks on during a ceremony at a prison in Abepura located in the restive eastern province of Papua on May 9, 2015. Indonesian President Joko Widodo on May 9 ordered the release of a group of political prisoners in Papua to "create a sense of peace" in a rare conciliatory gesture to the insurgency-hit eastern province. -- PHOTO: AFP

PRESIDENT Joko Widodo announced on Saturday he was lifting restrictions on foreign journalists in Papua immediately, after signing off pardons for five political detainees held for over a decade in a prison in the restive eastern province.

During an interview to three foreign journalists, Mr Joko was asked if he was ready to remove restrictions barring foreign journalists from reporting in Papua, and he said: "Yes, I will declare it (now)."

He said he wanted to declare it tomorrow, on the third day of his working trip in Papua, but decided the time was right to announce it immediately.

Just hours earlier, he officially signed off pardons for five political detainees who were convicted of a raid on a military arsenal in Wamena city in the Papuan highlands in 2003.

His trip to Papua, the second in five months, are part of an attempt to repair relations and over the people living in Indonesia's easternmost province which has a history of clashes between pro-separatists and local government.

The move also indicates Mr Joko's new approach to win over the Papuans by fulfilling a campaign promise to devote more attention to the development of Papua and improving the welfare of its people.

"We've released five detainees, to end the stigma of conflict in Papua and create an atmosphere of peace," he told a press conference after officially pardoning the five men, adding that this was just the beginning towards releasing other political detainees either by amnesty or clemencies.

Violence has plagued Papua since 1969 when Indonesia took over control of the region from the Dutch, ignoring Papuan demands for political sovereignty.

Historians note that Papuans, with over 240 distinct tribes and their own tribal practices, do not fit in the Indonesian national ideology of Pancasila, which lists belief in God as one of the five unifying principles of nation without specifying any particular God.

In response to rising demands to separate, Jakarta granted the region Special Autonomy in 2001 with a promise that more funds would be given to help accelerate development in Papua.

However, Papuans have long felt that the wealth of their natural resources have gone to government-approved mining and land development projects in the hands of foreign investors whose safety is enforced with heavy presence of police and military.

During an interview with a select group of foreign journalists, Mr Joko said it was time to take a different approach to managing relations with Papua.

"Before, we took a security approach with Papua. But now, we want to take a developmental and prosperity approach," he said.

The president, who stopped to take pictures with residents lining the streets in one Papuan village, said he felt "safe" now.

On this trip, he would be launching two major infrastructure projects - an oversea bridge linking two districts and an undersea optic cable linking Papua through to Sulawesi.

"The move (to release political detainees) is to facilitate trust between the government and the people of Papua," he said.

"For me, mutual trust is needed to create productive dialogue to resolve political issues," he said.

He flies to Merauke on Sunday, Indonesia's easternmost city in Papua, before flying off to Papua New Guinea on a state visit.

zubaidah@sph.com.sg