Sunday, April 14, 2019

Papua: The Christian Crisis in Eastern Indonesia

(NOTE: The western half of the island of New Guinea, Papua was formerly known as Irian Jaya)
-- by Elizabeth Kendal

Courtesy Vanuatu, Benny Wenda presents petition to Michelle Bachelet.

The U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet was taken by surprise on Friday 25 January when exiled Papuan independence leader Benny Wenda walked into her office.

The delegation from Vanuatu, which was in Geneva for a scheduled Universal Periodic Review (UPR), had requested and been granted a private meeting with Ms Bachelet.  Ravina Shamdasani, deputy spokeswoman at the U.N. Human Rights Office, explains what took place:

“During this meeting, one member of the Vanuatu delegation, Mr. Benny Wenda, presented the high commissioner with a petition. This was not actually a meeting arranged with Mr. Wenda for that purpose,” she said, adding that Ms Bachelet “was not aware” in advance.

The petition, which Indonesia has banned, carries over 1.8 million Papuan signatures collected in secret and at great risk.

As Australian journalist and author John Martinkus explains, the petition “calls on the UN to review the controversial 1969 vote that transferred control of West Papua to Indonesia. The Act of Free Choice vote, often referred to as the Act of No Choice by its detractors, saw 1026 people – selected by the Indonesian military – vote on behalf of their fellow West Papuans to give up sovereignty for Indonesian citizenship.

“The petition also asks for West Papua to be placed back on the UN decolonisation list. This would mean the possibility of a referendum on Papuan sovereignty, which Papuans have been hoping for since a similar referendum in East Timor, now Timor-Leste, resulted in its independence from Indonesia in 1999.”

In September 2017, Benny Wenda took the petition to New York, where the UN General Assembly was in session, with the hope of getting it into the hands of the United Nations Special Committee on Decolonisation.

Unfortunately, the committee’s chair, Rafael Ramirez (Venezuela), claimed not to have received the petition, before adding that it could not be accepted anyway, as Papua “is not on the agenda” and “Indonesia is a very good friend of ours”.

See: Papua (eastern Indonesia): a desperate and risky plea
Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin (RLPB) 426, 4 Oct 2017.

Needless to say, Mr Wenda’s 25 January coup has infuriated Indonesia. Indonesia’s Ambassador to the UN, Hasan Kleib, strongly condemned Vanuatu for essentially sneaking Wenda in and helping him get access to Bachelet.

“(They) deliberately deceived the High Commission by taking manipulative steps through the infiltration of Benny Wenda into the Vanuatu delegation,” Kleib fumed.

Mr Wenda with petition (25 January 2019, Geneva) Image: twitter

Unfortunately, in this battle for human rights, the Papuans have very few international friends. Australia, America and the United Kingdom – economically influential democracies that should be advocating for human rights in Papua – are more interested in keeping Indonesia out of China’s sphere of influence. And so the human rights of the mostly-Christian indigenous Papuans are sacrificed on the altar of good relations with Indonesia, for geo-strategic and economic gain.

The Trans-Papua Highway

One of Indonesia most controversial development projects is the Trans-Papua Highway, or Trans-Papuan Economic Corridor. The enormously expensive Trans-Papua Hwy will traverse Papua’s long-untraversable highlands, linking industries, mines and oil and gas hubs, while ploughing through pristine tropical rainforest, the world heritage listed Lorentz National Park and vast tracts of customary lands belonging to indigenous Papuans.

short film: Global Roadmap
For more information see:
Ill-advised' Papua highway imperils indigenous rights, rainforests
Rina Chandran, Thomson Reuters Foundation, 4 Feb 2019
also: Yale Environment 360

Writing in The Saturday Paper (9 Feb 2019), Australian journalist and author John Martinkus gives voice to Papuan fears.  “The 4000-kilometre road, will stretch from West Papua’s largest city, Sorong, through the Papuan mountains and forest to the town of Merauke in Indonesia’s east. Indonesian president Joko Widodo claims the road, the Trans-Papua Highway, will bring commerce and development to these remote regions. However, the highlanders see the road as a threat, which will bring Indonesian migrants and the military to the region. Many fear greater access to the highlands will destroy their way of life, as they believe it did for lowlanders living on the coast. As construction of the highway has progressed, it has catalysed many West Papuans to take up arms in opposition.”

And as Martinkus notes, “This escalation of the independence movement, one of the world’s longest-running insurgencies, brings with it the potential of an even deadlier conflict, for both sides.”

Martinkus explains that when he was in Papua in 2002, independence fighters were armed mostly with sticks, spears, bows and arrows, and maybe the odd hunting rifle. “Today,” he warns, “many West Papuan fighters are armed with Indonesian-produced weapons, bought or stolen from Indonesian soldiers.”

The fighters, he explains, are “the children of those killed, imprisoned and forced to flee during deadly confrontations with the Indonesian military in Papua’s remote central highlands. Growing up, these young Papuans also watched on as Grasberg – the world’s largest goldmine – has wreaked havoc on the environment of West Papua while generating billions for its co-owners, Freeport-McMoRan and the Indonesian government. Now adults, they have deeply held frustrations about perceived exploitation of their lands by the Indonesian government.”

Bloodshed in Nduga

On 2 December 2018, rebels affiliated with the West Papua Liberation Organization (WPLO) – a militant wing of the Free Papua Movement – abducted 25 construction workers working on the Trans-Papua Hwy in Nduga province, in the central highlands, north of the Freeport Grasberg mine. The next day the rebels took their captives to a nearby hilltop and shot them, killing 19 and injuring 4, who pretended to be dead to escape.

The WPLO claim that the laborers were actually armed Indonesian soldiers (TNI) who had attacked them. Reportedly, on 1 December, Papuans had spotted one of the laborers taking photographs of the Papuans as they raised the banned Morning Star flag in commemoration of the 1 December 1971 declaration of Papuan independence.

Displaced Papuan women
 Story of Nduga Refugees (17 Jan)
As would be expected, a heavy influx of TNI forces descended on Nduga province; retaliation has been swift and hard. While the military claims to be hunting the rebels responsible for the killings, the crackdown has forced some 32,000 mostly-Christian indigenous Melanesian Papuans to flee their homes. Many are struggling to survive in the jungle; at least nine women have given birth. In the Mbua district, two school children were shot dead by Indonesian security forces (TNI). Across Nduga region, the TNI has damaged or destroyed at least 34 schools and churches; it has also seized the SION GKI Mapenduma church for use as a military base. Those who have fled say they are too afraid to return to their homes.  Women and children are dying in the forest and camps for want of food and medical treatment.

Reports and photos have emerged of victims with deep burns. Canisters have been found which lend support to local claims that the TNI has been dropping explosive devices containing white phosphorous from helicopters.

As Chairman of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), Benny Wenda has condemned the use of chemical weapons by the Indonesian military on Papuan civilians. He said the ULMWP has received numerous reports regarding the use of chemical burn-causing weapons on villages in the Nduga region. “We have photos of burned limbs, dead bodies and empty munitions canisters.”

Naturally the TNI denies this. In fact the TNI is denying there has been any destruction at all, claiming it is all a ‘hoax’.

Father John Djonga has called for the Indonesian government to allow access to media, humanitarian organisations and a UN human rights mission.

Benny Wenda urged all Papuans to boycott the general elections on 17 April. “We respect Indonesia’s right to hold elections in its own territory,” he said, “but we will oppose the elections of the coloniser when they are forced upon us. We have tried participating in the elections of the colonial master before – but we are still killed, tortured and discriminated against every day.”

Recommended: War in West Papua
By John Martinkus, The Saturday Paper, 9 February 2019

Papua’s Christian Crisis 

As Indonesia drifts from Pancasila to Islamisation, the human rights situation in Papua takes on a whole new urgency. These are watershed days. The future of a Christian people is in the balance.


While searching for more details on the situation in Papua, I came across the following feature article in the Jakarta Globe. It might represent a still small Indonesian voice, but it is encouraging.  It also offers some insight into Papua for those who are unfamiliar with this closed land.

Giving Hope to the Children of Papua
By Primus Dorimulu, Jakarta Globe, 6 March 2019

Staff from the Lantern of Hope School and Siloam Clinic in Daboto
with supporter James Riady (center back) and local students.
(words and images by Primus Dorimulu, Jakarta Globe)

And for a wonderful article on this ministry by Christianity Today's Jeremy Weber, see:

In the mountains of Papua, missionaries and Indonesian professionals serve the lost together.
Christianity Today, 23 NOVEMBER 2020

YPHP founder James Riady joins Mek students in Nalca for a math class.
image: Jeremy Weber


Elizabeth Kendal is an international religious liberty analyst and advocate. She serves as Director of Advocacy at Canberra-based Christian Faith and Freedom (CFF), and is an Adjunct Research Fellow at the Arthur Jeffery Centre for the Study of Islam at Melbourne School of Theology.

She has authored two books: Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah Speaks to Christians Today (Deror Books, Melbourne, Australia, Dec 2012) which offers a Biblical response to persecution and existential threat; and After Saturday Comes Sunday: Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East (Wipf and Stock, Eugene, OR, USA, June 2016).