President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo said Monday he was ready to hold talks with separatist leaders to solve the conflict in Indonesia’s Papua region, as thousands of Indonesians who had migrated there were evacuated from Wamena, a highland town where 33 people died in violence last week.
A protest involving hundreds of high school students that was provoked by alleged racist remarks from an instructor descended into chaos in Wamena on Sept. 23, with crowds setting fire to government buildings, shops and homes, authorities said. On the same day, security forces clashed with student protesters in the provincial capital Jayapura, leaving three civilians and a soldier dead, police said.
“I will meet anyone who wants to meet me,” Jokowi told reporters at the Bogor Presidential Palace, when asked if he was ready for dialogue with pro-independence groups such as the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) and the National Committee of West Papua (KNPB).
The government has blamed ULMWP and KNPB for the unrest that has gripped Papua and West Papua provinces since last month, when thousands of protestors took to the streets across the mainly Melanesian region demanding a vote on self-determination. The protests broke out over alleged racist epithets that had been used against Papuan students on Java island.
Authorities said five people were killed during the initial violence in August and early September, but Papuan activists said they recorded at least 13 deaths.
Officials said the unrest was intended to draw international attention to Papuans’ demand for a referendum during the ongoing 74th U.N. General Assembly in New York.
ULMWP chairman Benny Wenda, who is based in Britain, welcomed Jokowi’s gesture.
“We welcome what was conveyed by the government of Indonesia. But we will only hold dialogue if all soldiers and police are withdrawn from the land of Papua without conditions,” Wenda told BenarNews.
The chairman of Indonesia’s National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) urged Jakarta to engage Papuan leaders in a dialogue.
“In my opinion, this is the best solution. If it is not resolved through dialogue, we are worried there will be greater ramifications, including an international intervention,” Ahmad Taufan Damanik told reporters in Jakarta.
Almost 7,300 people have sought refuge in police and military headquarters, as well in church and government buildings in Wamena after last week’s violence, said John Richard Banua, the administrative head of Jayawijaya regency, of which Wamena is the main town.
Tensions rose in Papua in December after separatist rebels allegedly killed 19 members of a crew building a highway in Nduga regency. Authorities immediately sent more than 750 soldiers and police to the region after the killings.
Five people tagged as suspects
Police have said that most of 33 people who were killed in last week’s violence were migrants from outside Papua. Five people had been named suspects over the riot, officials said.
The military said more than 3,100 migrants who feared they would be targeted had been evacuated to the provincial capital Jayapura.
“They will be helped to return to their home provinces, especially women and children,” armed forces chief Air Marshal Hadi Tjahjanto told reporters, adding that men had been advised to return to Wamena to rebuild the town’s economy.
Security Affairs Minister Wiranto also urged those who fled Wamena to return.
“You can imagine, if they flock out of Wamena, who will drive the economy?” Wiranto told reporters in Jakarta.
The Papua region, which makes up the Indonesian half of New Guinea island, was incorporated formally into Indonesia in 1969 following a U.N.-administered ballot known as the Act of Free Choice. Many Papuans and rights groups said the vote was a sham because it involved only 1,000 people.
Wamena resident Obelom Wakerkwa told BenarNews that the students who took part in the protests did not engage in vandalism and arson attacks.
He said he saw security forces firing warning shots in front of the protesters.
“That enraged the high school students and the situation became out of control,” he said.
Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta contributed to this report.