October 28, 2019 / 7:52 AM / 15 days ago

Indonesian president opens bridge in Papua amid efforts to quell unrest

JAKARTA (Reuters) - Indonesian President Joko Widodo will officially open a new $128 million bridge in Papua on Monday amid a renewed pledge to develop one of the country’s poorest regions, which has seen a spike in unrest over perceived racial discrimination.

Indonesian President Joko Widodo walk during his visit at Arfak mountain regency in West Papua province, Indonesia, October 27, 2019 in this photo taken by Antara Foto. Picture taken October 27, 2019 Antara Foto/via REUTERS

Widodo at the weekend visited several towns across Papua and West Papua provinces, which are collectively known as Papua, in his first trip to the country’s easternmost area since he was sworn in for a second five-year term last week.

Indonesia’s newly appointed deputy minister of public works, John Wempi Wetipo, a native Papuan politician, also joined the trip to Papua, where a mostly low-level separatist conflict has simmered for decades.

In Kaimana, the president, his wife and others in his party took part in a traditional Papuan dance on the sea front, with some officials swaying awkwardly.

There has been a spike in unrest over the past few months in Papua, including some of the worst bloodshed in decades when 33 people died in the town of Wamena in September, adding momentum to calls by separatist groups for a new independence referendum.

On Monday, Widodo ordered that the reconstruction of the main market in Wamena should be accelerated after it was torched during protests, according to a statement by the presidential office.

“If everyone here commits to staying united, together we can build the land of Papua and I think we can achieve prosperity and welfare quickly,” he said in the statement.

Widodo will hold talks with local leaders before opening the newly constructed Youtefa bridge in the provincial capital of Jayapura, his office said. The bridge cost 1.8 trillion rupiah (99.81 million pounds) to build, according to news portal CNN Indonesia.

Widodo has also promised 139 km of roads and a new airport in the Arfak highlands to help locals transport agricultural products to the Papuan city of Manokwari, his office said.

The killings of 16 construction workers building the Trans Papua highway, Widodo’s flagship project in the region, by separatist rebels last year has focused new attention on who will benefit from the new infrastructure in the region.

In the latest unrest in the area, Indonesian security forces said three motorbike taxi drivers were shot dead on Friday by separatists in Hitadipa, some 340 km away from Jayapura. The military wing of the Free Papua Movement, a separatist group, claimed responsibility, but said the victims were Indonesian military personnel.

Resource-rich Papua, which shares the island of New Guinea with the nation of Papua New Guinea, has a distinct Melanesian population and was a Dutch colony that was incorporated into Indonesia after a controversial U.N.-backed referendum in 1969.

Reporting by Jakarta bureau; Editing by Ed Davies and Sam Holmes

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