Indigenous separatist groups are renewing calls for an independent North Sulawesi after the arrest of Jakarta's Christian governor on blasphemy charges triggered an outpouring of anger and concern in this Christian-majority province.
The Gerakan Minahasa Merdeka (the Independent Minahasa Movement) posted a call for an independence referendum to Facebook last week that raised concerns over the growing influence of hardline Islamists in Indonesia. The group, and others like it, say that the court's decision to jail Jakarta Governor Basuki Tjahaja Purnama for blasphemy cast a dark shadow over the rights of Indonesia's Christian and indigenous minorities.
But these calls for independence were not about the Jakarta governor alone, Tuama Rocky Oroh, a local Minahasa independence activist wrote on Facebook. Ahok, as he is popularly known, is just one of the countless victims of ethnic and religious intolerance in Indonesia, he argued.
"Ahok's case is only 1 percent of the thousands of social and intolerance cases [that have occurred]," Rocky wrote on Facebook. "Ahok... only represents a tiny speck of the suffering that minorities in Indonesia have to go through."
The Minahasa people are indigenous to Indonesia's North Sulawesi, a province where as much as 63.6 percent of the population is Christian (protestant) and another 4.4 percent are Catholic. One of Asia's largest statues of Jesus towers over the provincial capital of Manado, built by the wealthy Ciputra family for Rp 5 billion ($375,742 USD). It's one of two giant statues of Jesus erected in Indonesia, the other in South Sulawesi's Tana Toraja.
The region's heavy Christian majority is why the role of increasingly influential Islamist groups is a cause of concern in North Sulawesi. When House of Representatives speaker Fahri Hamzah visited Manado, protestors clashed with police outside, demanding that the Muslim politician, who has a history of supporting those behind the anti-Ahok protests, leave the province.
"We don't want people like him visiting North Sulawesi," one of the protesters, told local media. "We love this country and we don't want it divided."
Except for those who do. Rocky wrote that the Minahasa people wanted no part of a country ruled by Islamist groups, arguing that, in his view, the government had to resist intolerant groups, or let North Sulawesi decided its own fate.
"Since the country gives in to radical groups and calls to turn the nation into an Islamic caliphate, then we, the people of Minahasa, demand a referendum!!!" he wrote. "NKRI or nothing."
A Facebook group promoting Minahasa independence had more that 17,000 followers on Monday. The page had been around for years, but the group has gained a renewed popularity in the wake of the Ahok trial. It's name, "Ancient of Minahasa," seems innocuous enough, until you start to dig into the region's turbulent relationship with Jakarta.
Way back in 1945, Alexander Maramis, a prominent local figure, rejected an early draft of Indonesia's founding ideology, the Pancasila, that mandated Sharia Law for all Muslims. It's this draft of the Pancasila which still bonds Indonesian Islamist groups today, but the document was eventually changed to mandate a belief in one God only.
More than a decade later, the independence movement was born as Lieutenant Colonel Ventje Sumual resigned from the Indonesian Army to start his own armed militia called Permesta (the People's Universal Struggle). The armed group was centered in Manado, with a wing in Sumatra, and the monetary support of the United States government. It argued that Soekarno's government extended too much power to the people of Java at the expense of the country's outer territories. Permesta fought the central government from 1957 to 1961, when they surrendered to Soekaro's forces.
A half-century later Gerakan Kemerdekaan Minahasa appeared as Central Sulawesi struggled through a period of brutal sectarian violence. Again, a religious issue elsewhere—this time the execution of three Catholics blamed for instigating a bloody riot in Poso—sparked calls for independence in North Sulawesi.
That's why some experts are urging the government to clamp down on any new talk of independence in North Sulawesi. The Minahasa independence movements might inspire other separatist groups to raise their own flags of independence again, warned Siti Zuhro, an expert at the Indonesian Institute of Science (LIPI).
"These sort of movements shouldn't be given a chance," Siti told local media. "The government can't make a misstep and be slow to react. They need to move fast."
Others think the Minahasa independence groups are taking advantage of frustration over the outcome of the Ahok blasphemy trial to spread their own beliefs.
"I feel like this issue was deliberately brought up by the Minahasa Merdeka separatists to take advance of dissatisfaction over the Ahok verdict in court," Abdul Kharis Almasyhari, the head of the House commission on law and justice, told local media.
But some dismiss the entire thing as little more than noise from a fringe group online. Tommy Lasut, a local journalist and popular figure in the Minahasa community, said that the Facebook groups were just using the language of independence to express their frustrations with the legal system. The local police seemed to agree, dismissing calls to arrest the movement's members for treason as unnecessary.
"The majority of Minahasa people are very nationalistic," Tommy said. "Look back at history, so many national figures from the independence era came from the Minahasa."
But the Ahok case touched a nerve in North Sulawesi.
"A lot of people see Ahok as a good leader," Tommy told VICE Indonesia. "When the case got politicized and favored the interest of certain groups, it became a problem."
Still President Joko Widodo's administration should reach out to discuss the matter with representatives in North Sulawesi to quell any concerns, he said.
"There needs to be an open dialogue between the government and Minahasa people," Tommy said. "Generally speaking, the discontentment is only within the sphere of politics and nothing more."