[This story was first published at 4:19 p.m. on Sunday, Dec. 28, 2014 and this update adds more details and changes headline]
Jayapura. President Joko Widodo has told a crowd in Papua that the shooting of five young civilians in the province earlier this month is unacceptable, and that the government will soon form a fact-finding team to investigate the case.
Joko, who is in Indonesia’s easternmost province to attend Christmas celebrations, said the incident, which occurred in the town of Enarotali in Paniai district on Dec. 8, was deplorable.
Security forces opened fire on about 800 peaceful demonstrators, including women and children. Five protesters were killed and at least 17 others — including elementary school students — were injured, according to a report from Human Rights Watch.
Joko, who addressed a crowd of hundreds at Mandala Stadium in Jayapura, the provincial capital, on Saturday, said he empathized with the grieving families.
“I want this case to be solved immediately so it won’t ever happen again in the future,” the president said. “By forming a fact-finding team, we hope to obtain valid information [about what actually happened], as well as find the root of the problems.”
Joko added he wanted peace in Papua.
“I want my visit to Papua to be useful, I want to listen to the people’s voices, and I’m willing to open dialogue for a better Papua,” he said.
Joko said the government needed to listen to Papuans in order to solve the long-running conflict in the restive region.
“I think that the people of Papua don’t only need health care, education, the construction of roads and bridges, but they also need to be listened to. That is what I will do in dealing with the problems in Papua,” he said.
Hostilities between Papuan civilians and the security forces have frequently turned deadly since Indonesia annexed the region in 1969.
The president had earlier faced strong calls from Papuans to abandon his plan to celebrate Christmas in the troubled eastern province due to his previous muted response to the Paniai shootings, which were one the worst acts of state violence in years.
Victims and activists have said the incident was prompted with the beating of a 12-year-old boy from Ipakiye village, five kilometers from Enarotali, when the boy confronted a group of men in an SUV for driving at night with their headlights off.
The beating resulted in villagers marching to the capital to demand an explanation the next day. At around 10 a.m. the crowd spotted the same SUV and began attacking it. Police then opened fire on the unarmed crowd, witnesses said.
But the National Police chief, Gen. Sutarman, gave a different account of what happened, claiming the victims were planning an attack against the local military base, where locals suspected the SUV driver was hiding.
Police stopped the crowd from advancing by setting up a barricade, he said.
“Amid the protest, some [unknown] gunmen fired shots from the hills far away, causing the 200 or so people to riot,” the police general claimed.
He also denied that a high school student was among the five people shot dead by officers, despite photographs obtained by HRW clearly showing young men in school uniforms among those shot.
The coordinator of the Papua Peace Network, or JDP, Rev. Neles Tebay, welcomed the president’s plan to form a fact-finding team, having previously criticized the police for being “very secretive” about their investigation.
“The president is willing to identify the problem, so surely this is a good commitment,” Neles said on Saturday.