November 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Enemy of the state

By Zacharias Szumer
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The dissident Indonesian lawyer charged for tweeting about Papuan activism

Indonesian political dissident Veronica Koman is a hard person to pin down. It takes three postponed appointments organised over an encrypted messaging service to finally get her on the line. Still, for someone who receives regular death and rape threats, it’s notable she allows herself to be contactable at all. 

The public-interest lawyer and Australian National University alumnus has been in exile in Australia since last year, when she was indicted in her home country for her alleged role in triggering a wave of violent protests. On the eve of Indonesian Independence Day in 2019, a pole bearing the nation’s flag was discovered wrenched down outside a Papuan student dormitory in Surabaya, East Java. Local residents, nationalist and Islamic organisations, and even a few military and police personnel, surrounded the building, yelling “Monkeys, go back to Papua” and other slurs. 

Koman, already a well-known human-rights advocate, posted a series of tweets about the confrontation. Footage of the incident spread rapidly through Indonesia, which has one of the largest and most active social-media markets in the world, triggering a month of massive protests. Government buildings and a prison were burnt down in Papua (which comprises two Indonesian provinces: Papua and West Papua), and the Morning Star flag, a symbol of the region’s independence movement, was flown at numerous protests. The unrest, which claimed around 60 civilian lives, was eventually quelled with a massive deployment of security forces and the arrest and indictment of protesters and allies, including Koman.

For Koman’s parents, her decision to study law had been a cause for concern. As a teenager, they had urged her to avoid any career that would bring her into conflict with the government or police – a sentiment common among Chinese Indonesians due to the historically fraught relationship they have had with both those institutions. So they were probably relieved when she landed her first job in Indonesia’s top corporate law firm. 

As it turned out, it was working for the law firm that radicalised her, after she was assigned to the mining and project division. “My task at that time was to look for loopholes to allow mega companies to break the law,” she tells me. “And I just felt that this wasn’t right. I survived four months.” 

She moved to Indonesia’s legal aid organisation and, presumably to her parents’ distress, took on cases that brought her into direct conflict with the police and the government: challenging a director in the health ministry who claimed that homosexuality was a mental disorder, and questioning the constitutional legitimacy of Aceh province’s Islamic criminal code. 

Papua came on to her radar in late 2014, when a demonstration in the central highland regency of Paniai ended with the death of five protesters after police and military personnel fired live ammunition into a crowd. Koman was shocked by the lack of outrage among Indonesians, and the young woman who once felt such strong national spirit she’d had “Indonesia” tattooed on her wrist started devoting herself to the cause that would turn her into an enemy of the state. 

The Paniai incident was also a challenge for the newly elected president, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, who had campaigned on promises to heal the troubled relationship between Jakarta and Papua. He had won a strong majority of the vote in both Papuan provinces, and shortly after assuming office he promised to release political prisoners and increase access for foreign journalists to the region. 

Jokowi’s positive gestures, and his engagement with Papuan leaders, are widely recognised as an improvement on his immediate predecessors. Nevertheless, six years later, his vows to bring justice for victims of human-rights abuses, end the culture of military and police impunity, and alleviate endemic poverty among indigenous Papuans remain largely unrealised. 

Jakarta has been mainly focused on building infrastructure in the region, an approach that critics say is premised on the false assumption that development will quench the thirst for independence and historical justice. Many say that Indonesia’s vastly different negotiating style with Aceh, where separatist ambitions have now been largely assuaged, reveals Jakarta’s condescending attitude towards Papuans and their political aspirations.

The degree of contention is encapsulated in Jokowi’s centrepiece infrastructure project, the Trans-Papua Highway – the first major road connecting remote highland areas of Papua to the coastal cities. Critics say the road is primarily intended to accelerate the exploitation of natural resources, such as forests, minerals and gas. Sections of the road are now being built by the military, after a deadly attack by the armed wing of the Papuan liberation movement in late 2018. 

Media freedom in Papua also remains the lowest nationwide, according to Indonesia’s peak press body. Although several active Papuan news outlets have sprung up since 2001, local journalists are reportedly regularly harassed and intimidated, and foreign journalists still have significant difficulty entering the region. 

In this environment, social-media accounts of well-connected activists such as Koman have become important sources of information. For several years, she has shared videos of events in Papua and her tweets are often referenced in news stories. For her tweets last September, Koman has been slapped with four separate charges relating to inciting violence, hate speech and broadcasting false information, which carry a combined sentence of more than six years. 

Koman says the crackdown is her government’s backlash against a growing segment of educated, politically progressive Indonesians who sympathise with the plight of Papuans and support an independence referendum. Such people are increasingly connected with a generation of well-organised, politically astute Papuan activists, who are also more uncompromising on the issue of self-determination than their parents’ generation. 

In the past two decades, these Papuan activists, along with popular leaders in exile such as Benny Wenda, have made large strides in their international campaign. In 2016, Papuan advocates, including the leaders of supportive Pacific nations, managed to get then Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to support a UK-supervised independence vote. Activists have been unable to draw similar support from the major Australian political parties, which generally bracket expressions of concern over human-rights violations within clear affirmations of Indonesia’s sovereignty over Papua, a position to which they are bound by a 2006 treaty with Indonesia.

However, as Richard Chauvel, an expert on Australia–Indonesia relations at the University of Melbourne’s Asia Institute, says, such affirmations “are not taken at face value in Jakarta. The unspoken response is that this was what Australia said about Timor-Leste, until it mattered.” Indonesian officials and media often talk up the possibility of foreign interference driving the Papuan independence movement. During the 2019 uprising, a satirical “Honest Government Ad” about West Papua produced by Australian satirical group The Juice Media was shared in Indonesia with the warning: “Stay Vigilant: Australia is Preparing to Annex Papua”.

Koman, too, says she is regularly accused of destabilising Indonesia on behalf of foreign agents who seek to steal Papua’s natural wealth. “Once every few days there are memes, comments posted on social media that try to smear me,” she says. “In the beginning it was quite draining to be called traitor and receive threats every day, but now I’ve become used to it.” 

Although Koman is genuinely detested among a large swathe of Indonesian nationalists, the online vitriol she faces doesn’t only come from isolated individuals. Late last year, a joint BBC–Australian Strategic Policy Institute investigation revealed that media firms were coordinating a network of fake social-media accounts to spread pro-government content on Papua and smearing Koman and other activists. She suspects the government is behind the campaign, and although there is no indisputable evidence for this, an investigation by Reuters this year also uncovered a network of pro-government “news websites” facilitated and funded by the Indonesian military. 

Indonesia’s struggle to contain COVID-19 hasn’t sidelined Papuan discontent. Building on the global Black Lives Matter movement, activists launched the #PapuanLivesMatter media campaign to highlight racism towards Papuans. More recently, protests have centred on the proposed extension of a law implemented in 2001, which sought to subdue independence aspirations by allocating additional funds from the central government and giving Papuans more political and economic autonomy. Twenty years after it was first implemented, many feel that its main achievement has been the enrichment of a thin strata of corrupt Papuan leaders, and 90 organisations have so far signed a petition rejecting the law’s extension.

A steady stream of large protests is unlikely to abate in the lead-up to December 1, the date the independence movement recognises as Papuan independence day. Tensions have also been ratcheted up by several recent killings, including of a respected priest, which have been blamed on security forces.

“There’s so much distrust among West Papuans towards Jakarta now, it’s getting worse and worse,” says Koman. 

Koman naturally has no plans to return to Indonesia in the near future, and the Australian government has made no statements about whether an Interpol red notice for her extradition was issued as per the request of Indonesian authorities, and if so whether the government would comply with it.

The Indonesian government recently demanded that Koman return the scholarship funds for her master’s degree at ANU – a decision that she refers to as “financial punishment” – but Papuan residents and other organisations have since crowdfunded more than enough to cover the Rp 773.8 million ($72,340) in withdrawn support. 

Indonesia’s foreign ministry has called Koman out in media reports, saying that it’s hypocritical for a lawyer to flee from a legal system when it turns on her, but Koman says that’s exactly why she’s not going back. 

“It’s precisely because I’ve been working within the system that I know the system is broken. 

“Right now, I’m focusing my work on exposing what’s happening there, and it’s working. I am ready to be arrested for this cause, but I’m more useful if I’m not in jail.”

Zacharias Szumer

Zacharias Szumer is a Melbourne-based writer whose work appears in OverlandJacobin and elsewhere.

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