Yvette Tanamal, Jakarta – Arriving in Papua on Wednesday, President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo quickly centered his attention on economic and infrastructure development as part of his long-standing approach to the country's easternmost region, which is beset by various political and security challenges.
"De-isolating" Papua from the rest of the world and increasing its economic mobility appeared to be among Jokowi's priorities for his latest trip, as his itinerary suggests, a strategy generally hailed by observers as a step toward bridging the regional divide between Papua and the country's more developed western provinces.
But the economic approach, if not paired with concrete efforts to address decades-old political conflict, is unlikely to soothe a restless Papua, experts have argued.
On Thursday, Jokowi visited a corn field in Jayapura regency's food estate, inaugurated the newly built Ewer Airport in southern Papua's Asmat regency and surveyed some small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in the area.
Ewer Airport was first developed in 2018, costing some Rp 287 billion (US$19 million) and designed to cater to 14,000 travelers per year.
It will operate two flights from Timika per week, as well as four from Kamur and Merauke. "Connectivity between the country's regions is very important. Whether it be among regencies, provinces or islands, it will improve mobility for both people and commodities," said Jokowi. "We hope that the economy in the Asmat regency will be improved."
On Jayapura's corn fields, where he gave some advice on yielding better harvests, Jokowi emphasized that a good food-production management system would lead to a more prosperous eastern Indonesia. "For eastern Indonesia, if the production levels can exceed 7 tonnes [per hectare], people from everywhere would crowd to get here. [...] I will return in three months to check on the harvest," said the President.
Since assuming leadership in 2014, Jokowi has placed economic advancement as his primary cure-all to address Papua's unrest, launching key initiatives including infrastructure projects and a particular focus on targeted sectors such as agriculture, mining and tourism.
Located furthest from Java, where most of the nation's development has been centered around for decades, many parts of Papua have for long grappled with scant economic resources and deficient infrastructure, despite an abundance of natural resources that include copper, silver and gold.
This, combined with a multitude of other factors, has given rise to political unrest, including separatism, a phenomenon frequently responded to by the government with military crackdowns and human rights abuses.
In an ongoing crisis, a separatist group in Papua's Nduga province kidnapped a New Zealand pilot five months ago, sparking a clash with the Indonesian Military (TNI) that resulted in the deaths of several soldiers.
After months of uncertainty, authorities on Tuesday announced that they would be prepared to pay a ransom of up to Rp 5 billion (US$331,268) in exchange for the pilot's safe return.
In some ways, Jokowi's focus on Papua's economy is spot on, as it will alleviate many of the region's problems, said National Research and Innovation Agency (BRIN) senior political researcher Adriana Elisabeth.
In 2021, the government allocated Rp 6.19 trillion for Papua's development, covering water-resources development and road construction, as well as settlement and housing development. A 3,462-kilometer-long trans-Papua road is also underway, on top of cross-border posts built along Papua's border.
"Generally speaking, welfare is indeed one of the most prominent problems in Papua. Jokowi's infrastructure projects in Papua are tangible too. You can see it in the roads, the bridges, the ports, the schools and the hospitals," Adriana told The Jakarta Post on Thursday. "Compared with previous leaders, Jokowi also moves relatively fast.
He will monitor every project, and nothing is impossible for him. Building roads in a conflict-prone area is dangerous, but for him, no isn't an answer." But that problems still persisted in parts of the region, Adriana continued, was a sign that money can solve all but the most deep-seated political and security issues.
For instance, the recent corruption case involving former Papua governor Lukas Enembe is evidence that the cash flow in Papua was not being circulated equitably, a problem Adriana associated with the central government's lackluster supervision and control. And no amount of money will make up for a sincere apology and the government's accountability for its human rights abuses, Adriana warned.
"There are economic aspects, but also political, security and cultural aspects. Security and political stability cannot be exchanged for economic growth. It cannot ever be exchanged for someone's right to live their life without fear of being gunned down at anytime," she asserted.
Only "partially resolving" Papua's problems would also present challenges to Indonesia's position on the international stage, said Tantowi Yahya, a former diplomat overseeing Jakarta's Pacific relations.
For decades, Papua has always been Indonesia's soft underbelly when it comes to foreign policy, having been confronted at global forums like the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) on multiple occasions. Presently, Indonesia's efforts to intensify its relations with Pacific Island nations amid increased geopolitical rivalry in the region will likely face roadblocks due to the situation in Papua, Tantowi said. "The only political issue in the Pacific is Papua. Other issues are either temporary or mild in comparison.
If we don't manage this correctly, it really puts us in a difficult position. It will continue to be a problem; an itch," he told the Post on Thursday. As long as the central government fails to address the issue, the senior politician said, the Foreign Ministry will only stand as "fire extinguishers" on the global stage.
"There are at least two political problems in Papua: human rights abuses and a perceived opportunity gap between the locals and newcomers. Economic development cannot fix all of these problems. Let us not prescribe the wrong medicine when curing a disease," he said