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The Indonesian women speaking out about West Papua - whatever the cost

ABC Radio National - March 23, 2020

Belinda Lopez for Earshot – In the wake of the Lindt cafe attack in Sydney, a hashtag made its way around the world: #illridewithyou.

The gunman had forced hostages to hold up a flag of the Shahada, the Islamic affirmation of faith, and many Muslims feared a backlash.

In Jakarta, Zely Ariane scanned the messages of solidarity, frustrated that Indonesians were paying more attention to #illridewithyou than the deaths of teenagers in their own country.

It was the genesis of a movement to raise awareness about the struggle facing West Papuans.

But those who first spoke out have had to reckon with the life-changing consequences of discussing one of the most sensitive political issues in Indonesia.

'We need solidarity'

A week before the Lindt cafe attack in 2014, Indonesian security forces had fired into a crowd of demonstrators in Paniai, killing four teenagers.

Indonesia's military was recently found to have committed gross human rights violations over the incident, known as Bloody Paniai. Security forces claimed they were defending themselves from violence.

The crowd had been protesting over the alleged torture of a 14-year-old boy, who has since died, by members of the military.

After Bloody Paniai, Zely had an idea to seize on the momentum of #illridewithyou. "It was all over social media. So we made a poster," she said.

Lawyer Veronica Koman also decided she needed to speak out.

"I was already disturbed by West Papua issues, but because the victims were children, it really outraged me," she told me back in 2016. "We agreed we need solidarity in Jakarta."

The birth of Papua Itu Kita

Zely, Veronica and other Indonesian and West Papuan activists formed a movement called Papua Itu Kita (Papua Is Us). Their first logo was Zely's #illridewithyou poster.

Papua Itu Kita started holding events that allowed ordinary Indonesians to "build a bridge" with Papuans, to overcome long-held prejudices and to better understand Papuan culture and aspirations.

"Sometimes it's not because Indonesians are racist, it's because they just don't understand," Zely told me when I first met her in 2015.

But her online and offline activities did not go unnoticed. "I always get calls in the middle of the night. There's just silence on the other end," Zely said, about a year after Papua Itu Kita began.

She hadn't yet had any serious threats. "It's not like I'm posting hardcore posts about Papuan independence on Facebook," she said.

But despite Papua Itu Kita's softly-softly approach to discussing human rights, Zely and Veronica were aware that engaging with this topic could be viewed as political by the authorities.

Papua Itu Kita met regularly, often at the Jakarta Legal Aid Institute, where Veronica worked at the time. When I spoke to her there, she told me to look out for the men sitting in the food stalls surrounding the building.

"Half of them are intels," she said, referring to intelligence officers. "West Papua issues are just an intel magnet."

History lessons

Indonesian government sensitivities about West Papua are woven deep into the fabric of its national story. After Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch in 1945, it fought for Papua to be included in its territory.

The then-president Sukarno urged his people to liberate Papua, then known as Irian Jaya, from Dutch colonialism. Veronica learned this history at school.

She was a "crazy nationalist" by the time she was 19, despite growing up in a Chinese-Indonesian family, a minority background in Indonesia that has also experienced racism and violence.

She showed me the tattoo inked across her forearm. "It's the philosophy that Indonesia is running through my veins," she said.

Back then she dismissed international criticisms of Indonesia's actions in West Papua as more Western colonialism against her country, and a "US conspiracy".

But when she searched online about West Papua in English, she was shocked to discover the extensive body of reports documenting human rights abuses in the territory.

The Papuan version of history was also online: Papua was also a Dutch colony, and many scholars argued it only became a part of Indonesia because of a UN-backed election in 1969, which has been called corrupt.

"I was being brainwashed. Indonesians are being brainwashed and systematic censorship," Veronica said.

After forming Papua Itu Kita, Zely also had a desire to learn more. A year after the Paniai killings, she visited Papua for an extended trip.

When she returned to Jakarta, she longed to return and live there, to better understand the region and its subtleties.

"The more it is understood by people in Jakarta in detail, things can only get better," she told me at the time. "I need longer to understand."

'We've come so far'

In August last year, nearly five years since the deaths of the Papuan teenagers, a rare thing happened: West Papua made global headlines.

It started in the week of Indonesia's independence day, when Veronica was acting as the lawyer for Papuan students threatened by nationalistic groups at their student dormitory in Java. The students were accused of damaging an Indonesian flagpole.

By then, Veronica had moved to Australia to do her masters. She was on the phone to them when police stormed their boarding house. She tweeted about it.

Videos of what happened went viral on social media, with accounts of the students being subjected to racist taunts.

It felt like the heat had been turned up on something that had been simmering for years.

What came next were the largest protests about Papua that had been seen in decades, around Indonesia.

Veronica spent her days online, documenting the demonstrations on Twitter as the Indonesian government shut down the internet in West Papua – a move it said would restore order.

She managed to gain access to footage of demonstrations that continued after the network was blocked.

"I sort of destroyed Jakarta's narrative, because Jakarta said that the situation in West Papua has gone back to normal but I kept posting these videos which made their claim not true," Veronica said.

An exile in Australia

Then Veronica found herself a regular fixture in the Indonesian news headlines.

She was named a suspect by Indonesian police, accused of spreading "hoaxes" and acting as a "provocatuer".

She now describes herself as being in exile in Australia.

Indonesian police have threatened to cancel her passport, close her bank accounts and put her on an Interpol red list to have her brought back to Indonesia.

Fifty-six West Papuans have also been charged with treason following the protests, according to Amnesty International.

An Indonesian man, Surya Anta, is currently the first Indonesian being tried for treason in connection to West Papua, after protesting in support of self-determination. All face life imprisonment, according to Amnesty.

Veronica says what appears to have changed following the recent demonstrations is that Indonesians are more aware of West Papuan grievances, regardless of where their support lies.

"Ignorant Indonesians like to say: 'Ah it's only a handful of Papuans who want independence from Indonesia, surely'," she said.

"But now, because of the footage of thousands of Papuans demanding West Papua independence, I haven't heard such ignorant comments being said again."

She also points to a small group of Indonesians showing public support for West Papuan goals, despite the personal risks involved. "You saw Indonesians leading the marches," she said.

When I met her in Sydney recently, I asked her if she could have imagined this support from Indonesians when we spoke not too long after she began her activism in late 2014.

"Oh my God, I now feel a little bit teary. That's right, I didn't imagine that at all," she said. "We've come so far."

A bittersweet ruling

Yet the tragedy that prompted Veronica's involvement has not been resolved.

The Indonesian government has sent mixed signals about last month's finding by the National Commission on Human Rights (Komnas HAM) after its five-year investigation into the Paniai incident.

While the government initially committed to following up on the report, the Attorney-General's Office, which is responsible for instigating prosecution, recently said the commission's findings were incomplete, and that it would return the dossier.

Zely fulfilled her dream of returning to Papua and later married a man from Paniai. She now works as a journalist, reporting on the region.

She still recalls the speech that President Joko Widodo gave to Indigenous Papuans a few weeks after the Paniai killings.

He told them he wanted the case to be "resolved as quickly as possible, so that it does not reoccur in future".

Zely says people have grown weary of seeking justice for what happened.

"They just focus on their wounds. They know that the legal process won't deliver a win," she said.

"They feel numb. And the situation [in Papua] since Paniai has only become worse.

"There have been too many new tragedies, new arrests, and far more deaths than the four people who died in Paniai."

Source: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-03-23/illridewithyou-indonesians-cost-of-talking-about-west-papua/1204993