Pro-independence groups clashed with police this week, leaving at least ten people dead and dozens arrested. As it happens with similar protest movements, what began as anti-racism protests evolved into a push for autonomy from the central government.
At the end of August, calling it a matter of ‘national security,’ the government shut off access to the internet. Because of that, the details of the last few days have been harder to come by, even though the government partially lifted the blackout. However, Bruce Smith, president/CEO of Wycliffe Associates, explains, the current situation is not new. “There’s been a percolating independence movement in that part of Indonesia, that goes back to post-World War Two decisions that were made by European powers and other things like that.”
More specifically, he says, “Papuans were really never participants in their own self -determination of the political future of their island. This independence movement has ebbed and flowed over the past 50 years, and it’s currently heating up again, for a variety of reasons.” The current tensions erupted on August 17, after the government took dozens of Papuan students into custody on Java, following a pro-independence rally. Smith says several incidents made Papuans feel marginalized by the rest of Indonesia. “They’re really appealing for justice, and they’re appealing for recognition, in terms of their authority and self-determination.”
Recently, Smith tells us, the church leaders of Papua got together and released an ecumenical response to the crisis. “They are appealing for international attention and even International (potentially) intervention into the process that would help them be more self-determining in terms of the future of their province and their island nation.” The document outlined the concerns of the faith community but received no response from government, police, or military representatives. Instead, the government deployed troops, violence increased, and goods and services saw disruption.
The Church responds
When asked if the movement on Papua compares to secession or breakaway republic, Smith said it depends on to whom you speak. Some of the more radical protestors want complete autonomy, demanding an independence referendum. “Others would say, ‘No, that’s not what we want. What we want is to participate in government; what we want is to be part of a democratic process in which we have a voice’. The church leaders are calling for that kind of a process today in Papua.”
Papua has also been a popular place for ministries. Smith says while the unrest could shut down travel and complicate other forms of ministry, it’s unlikely to affect Bible translation work that Wycliffe Associates supports. Instead, it could accelerate the pace. “We think that–in parallel to their self-determination about politics, and economics, and in all of these kinds of things that are coming to the fore now–that same self-determination is what’s driving their desire to have scripture in every one of their minority languages. It’s all part of the same dynamic.”
Praying for the outcome
Deeply entrenched are the issues threatening Papua. It is a fight that’s been going on for decades already, and a complicated problem to resolve. Because Indonesia doesn’t make the headlines very often, Smith encourages Christians to seize this opportunity to pray. “This is a call to engagement. It’s a call to awareness and to engage in prayer, in support financially, and to be supportive of the whole body of Christ as it faces challenges around the world.”
(Headline map courtesy Wikimedia/CC)