Jokowi tries harder with restive Papua after spending billions

Mr Joko Widodo toured the easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua this past week. PHOTO: AFP

JAKARTA (BLOOMBERG) - Indonesian President Joko Widodo's government spent US$11 billion (S$14.95 billion) over seven years in two of the poorest but resource-rich provinces in the country to win over the locals.

Now he is trying even harder in an often-restive region that has been marred by separatist protests. Jokowi, as the president is known, toured the easternmost provinces of Papua and West Papua this past week.

He helped to seed a cornfield and gave the jacket off his back to a local in what appears to be a soft-power exercise after his government spent billions from 2014 until now to build a new sports stadium, a 3,462-km toll road, a hospital, five seaports and six new airports.

The highlight of Jokowi's tour was a 10,000-strong event in Jayapura, Papua's provincial capital, to kick off a national sports week held for the first time outside the economic and political powerhouses of Java and Sumatra islands.

"This sports week shows Papua's development, its infrastructure preparedness and readiness of the people of Papua to host a major event," Jokowi said in the opening ceremony, after local artists sang a song often used by pro-independence protesters. "Let's trust that Papua's development will happen quickly."

Jokowi is the first Indonesian president to regularly visit these two provinces, seeking to boost the local economy and quell decades of resentment. The region has suffered years of conflict between pro-independence groups and the government over human rights abuses and natural resource exploitation, after becoming part of Indonesia following a controversial UN-backed referendum in 1969.

Despite being home to one of the world's largest gold mines, more than a quarter of Papuans live below the poverty line. Last year, the UN Human Rights Office raised its concern over escalating violence in West Papua, where civilians were killed in an alleged police shootout. The UN statement cited excessive use of power, arrests and intimidation of protesters by the armed forces.

Jokowi is willing "to make competitive reforms in infrastructure and keeps looking beyond Java and Jakarta," said Greg Barton, a professor of global Islamic politics at Deakin University in Australia. That's what sets him apart from his predecessors, he added.

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