Tuesday, 25 February 2020

Veronica Koman: I Will Not Run Away

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  • TEMPO.CO, Jakarta - Being a fugitive whilst living abroad does not necessarily limit Veronica Koman’s space. The lawyer and human rights activist, who is a vocal advocate about issues in Papua, can still do a lot of things during her ‘exile’ in Sydney, Australia.

    VERONICA was even able to join a march for the death of Kumanjayi Walker, an Aboriginal man allegedly shot dead by a police officer. “This was the third time that an Aboriginal is dead in the hands of the police,” Veronica told Tempo, Wednesday, November 13.

    Veronica, who received the master's degree in law from the Australian National University in July, was down under when the East Java Police named her as a suspect for spreading hoax and hate speech on September 4. The charges are related to the riots at the Papua Students Dormitory in Surabaya. She is accused of provoking the masses and spreading lies through social media.

    Indonesian police have put her name on the wanted list and Interpol’s red notice. But she is not bothered. The former public lawyer at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute actually feels lucky compared to her compatriot Paulus Surya Anta Ginting, who was detained by the police. Surya Anta and five other Papuan activists were named suspects of treason for allegedly flying the Morning Star flag during a demonstration, demanding for a referendum, in front of the State Palace on August 28.

    Veronica, 31, feels bad because her friends were captured while she is roaming free in Australia. The Chinese-Indonesian woman recently received the Sir Ronald Wilson Human Rights Award from the Australian Council for International Development. “From August to September, many were arrested and died (in Papua). And here I am receiving an award? I actually feel ashamed and remorseful,” she said.

    During two video and phone calls on November 11 and 13, Veronica told Tempo’s Mahardika Satria Hadi and Aisha Shaidra about what motivated her to speak up about issues in Papua, her stance on the demand for a referendum, as well as her desire to return home.

    Does having a fugitive status disrupt your activities?

    Since in Jakarta, I have been monitoring Papua remotely. It’s not much different now that I am in Australia – monitoring and making reports. The difference is that because I am abroad, I cannot provide assistance and proceed in court.

    How do you advocate issues of Papua when you are thousands of kilometers away?

    While enrolling in Australia, I continue to advocate. Sometimes, when there are cases, people contact me. It is like giving first aid – the legal version. Papuans contact me because there are very few human rights defenders in Papua who advocate. Papuans often contact me, maybe because I am often online.

    Who help you on the field?

    In Papua, human rights defenders are only available in cities. We all advocate.

    How, for example?

    Most of us verify the problems based on the Papuans’ version, then we display alternative versions. Sometimes I help journalists and connect them with people on the field.

    How often do you go to Papua?

    Since 2015, I can go there two or three times a year, each visit for several weeks. On April-May I was in Timika, handling three cases in court hearings.

    That was before you went to Sydney?


    The police are accusing you of spreading hoaxes through social media. What exactly happened?

    For the case in Surabaya, the Papuan students in Surabaya have gone to the National Human Rights Commission in Jakarta. They filed a report and held a press conference explaining that what I exposed are the truths; based on what they experienced.

    You often get information from the field and share it on social media. How do you verify that information?

    I contact people at the location to connect me with the victims, witnesses or the victim’s family. So I speak directly to the people who experienced the events. I contact at least two people. We run journalistic work. Impunity and human rights violations occur in Papua because many people do not know the facts or the facts are bent by the authorities.

    You are accused of spreading disinformation and provoking people so that the masses in Papua marched to the streets.

    Regarding the hoax (accusation), the Papuans actually say that I am their messenger. Regarding my tweets, they accused my tweet informing that there would be a protest as an instigation. People who know about Papua know that there are very few Papuans who have Twitter accounts. So who was I instigating? My goal was purely a journalistic one; because I know many international journalists follow me on Twitter. What we do is keep an eye on Papua to see when something is up.

    The demonstration in Papua led to riots in cities during August and September.

    At the beginning, the demonstration was about fighting racism. But by the second week, the people were demanding a referendum. The tagline at the time was about a referendum for Papuans to decide their own fates as a solution to end racism. This is inseparable from the roots of conflicts in Papua that have existed since the 1960s as identified by the Indonesian Institute of Sciences (LIPI). So, it’s not just me. The history of integration is the root of conflicts in Papua. I think there has to be a political will from Jakarta to talk about it.

    The President invited 61 Papuan leaders to the State Palace.

    That’s what they say, “representative”, when in fact all Papuans were asking who those people were – no one knew who they were.

    So who is the right person to represent the Papuan people?

    Actually, Pak Moeldoko (Presidential Chief of Staff) had mentioned about the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). In Papua, many organizations are voicing out about liberation. They are united under the ULMWP. So, talk to ULMWP. They already obtained cultural and historical mandates from the people of Papua to talk with Jakarta.

    Have you communicated with Benny Wenda?

    I have for several times. The ULMWP was not founded by Benny Wenda. He was only one of the people who attended (the founding ceremony). The ULMWP is purely a representation of the people of West Papua.

    Do you support the demand for the referendum?

    I am pro-self-determination. Referendums are a democratic tool. As the third-largest democracy in the world, referendums should not be a taboo here. The right to self-determination is an unnegotiable, fundamental human right that is recognized by our constitution. As a human rights lawyer, I cannot say one type of human rights that is not violated in Papua. The rights to education, health, clean water, and other rights. These violations occur because their basic rights, namely the right to self-determination, are violated.

    What are the Papuans’ complaints regarding the intensive economic and infrastructure development approach in the last five years?

    The right to development for Papuans is necessary and very important. But, the problem is, this Jakarta-style development was not done through consultations. None asked the Papuans, "how do you want (the projects) built?"

    Do you feel that Jokowi’s commitment to solving problems in Papua has not touched its roots?

    I believe Pak Jokowi has good intentions for Papua. But he has not had the guts to touch the roots of the Papua conflicts.

    Read the full interview in Tempo English Magazine