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For decades, the Indonesian government has operated with relative impunity in West Papua. Human Rights Lawyer Veronica Koman has made it her life mission to expose environmental vandalism and human rights violations in the Indonesian province.
Koman is on the run for her life.
Having shown her support for West Papua’s independence, the Indonesian human rights lawyer now receives regular death threats and rape threats from fellow Indonesians. She never stays in one place for more than a few nights.
In February this year, Koman uploaded a video to Twitter. It shows a screaming 16-year-old West Papuan boy handcuffed to the ground as an Indonesian policeman wraps a large snake around his body.
The boy was accused of stealing a mobile phone.
The video went viral, catching the attention of the UN Human Rights Commissioner and MPs in the UK parliament. They demanded answers from Indonesia.
Now the world is watching – and Indonesia’s pledge to nurture West Papua’s economic development and the well-being of its Indigenous population is starting to unravel.
Until recently, the Indonesian Government has been largely successful at preventing international journalists from witnessing what is happening to Indigenous people and the environment in West Papua; a peninsula occupied by the Dutch until the mid-1960s, now a province of Indonesia.
West Papua is rich in natural resources, making it a golden goose for mining operators, gas companies, the logging industry and overseas shareholders. The Indonesian Government holds a majority share of Freeport which operates the biggest gold mine in the world and the second biggest copper mine.
“The Indonesians think of West Papuans as sub-human,” Koman tells Dateline. “The Indonesians tend to always use the word ‘monkeys’.”
With the help of social media, Pacific allies such as Vanuatu and powerful global lobby groups such as the Word Council of Churches, the West Papuan independence movement is steadily gathering international support.
Indonesia is worried enough to go on a PR exercise in the Pacific, promising aid money in return for support of their sovereignty.
For West Papuans, the biggest trump card yet could be an ever-expanding group of young, educated Indonesians who are supporting West Papuans’ rights for self-determination.
In November 2016, The Indonesian People’s Front for West Papua (Front Rakyat Indonesia untuk West Papua) was formed after a group of Indonesians declared their support to West Papuan self-determination.
Life on the run
Veronica Koman is a rarity among her colleagues. She is one of few lawyers representing West Papuans against the Indonesian state.
It has also come at great personal cost.
A recent visit to Sydney was a rare chance to safely speak about her work after representing three West Papuans in a treason trial in Timika – near mining company Freeport’s Grasberg Mine.
Despite her best efforts, the three men joined a long list of West Papuan political prisoners receiving sentences of between eight months and two years for ‘coercion and rebellion’.
The case is just one of many that have left Koman and those defending West Papuans overstretched.
“Last month there were two West Papuans who died in custody,” Koman explains. “I spoke to the family and some people inside the jail as well. My initial investigations revealed they were tortured to death and this is going nowhere until now, no investigation, nothing.
“The caseload is overwhelming and no-one from the Indonesian military or police is ever convicted. We don’t even bother taking many of the cases to court anymore.” she says.
Instead, Koman and her West Papuan colleagues document what happened in the hope that one day the UN and international community will intervene and the families will get justice.
Propaganda and death threats
As well as battles in court, Koman is fighting a parallel propaganda war online where she has been singled out as traitor of the state.
“It is precisely because they cannot counter my data about the human rights cases so they go after me as an individual,” she says.
“They try to make me look like I’m not a credible person. They say that I am a hoaxer. Indonesia is a big twitter user, one of the biggest in the whole world, so I put what is happening in West Papua on my twitter account.”
While online threats have become common, in December 2018 Koman was forced to barricade herself inside an NGO office as a mob of angry civilian vigilantes (backed by the State) in Jakarta tried to break down her door after an independence protest by West Papuan students.
She was the lawyer representing the protesters. All 300 of them.
“I had rocks thrown at me, I was racially insulted, people were screaming at me, ‘you traitor, are you funding this? You Chinese must be funding this separatism, you traitor you get out of the country, we will kill you.’
“The senior activist said I had to get out of the country. I did and several days after that some civil militia groups came to the office, they were looking for me.”
Like many Indonesians, as a child, Veronica learnt that West Papua was part of Indonesia and that Indonesian money was helping the poorest Indonesian province develop.
“Most Indonesians think if West Papua was free they will not know how to govern themselves; they are stupid, they are uncivilised, they don’t know how to govern themselves, they will be doomed if they separate from us,” she says.
“At school I remember from my personal experience we were taught that during the 1960s President Sukarno was so heroic for liberating West Papuan from the Dutch. Then I found out later from the West Papuans that most West Papuans think that moment was the beginning of the Indonesian occupation.
“When I began to dig deeper looking at English material on what is happening in West Papua, I found material in academic journalists from Yale University and Sydney University describing ‘slow motion genocide’.
19 Indonesia killed, 35,000 West Papuans displaced
The Indonesian Army has been in conflict with pro-Independence fighters of West Papua or The National Liberation Army of West Papua (TPNPB-OPM) in the Nduga Regency, West Papua’s Central Highlands.
The violence in the Central Highlands escalated after West Papuan independence soldiers killed 19 Indonesians working on the Trans Papua highway in December 2018 as conflict over the development intensified.
That month, a report in The Saturday Paper from veteran journalist Mark Davis detailed accounts of bombs being dropped, villages torched and allegations of the use of white phosphorous on civilians. Indonesia has denied the claims.
A subsequent Al Jazeera report estimated the conflict in Nduga had forced 35,000 people to flee their homes.
Many are now starving. However, recent reports say a small amount of food aid has been delivered by the Social Affairs Ministry.
In March this year, Koman presented a statement to the Human Rights Council in Geneva calling for an end to the police and military operations in Nduga.
She called for the return of thousands internally displaced people of as well as an independent investigation into the alleged atrocities occurring there.
A failed referendum, decolonisation and a golden goose
The beginnings of the West Papua struggle with Indonesia go back decades to the moment it was given its independence from the Dutch on December 1 1961. In the following years, neighbouring Indonesia began to assert its claim over the province.
A subsequent referendum on independence, known as ‘the Act of Free Choice’, was held in 1969. However its legitimacy has been questioned after 1,026 West Papuans were forced to vote for Indonesia out of a population of 800,000 people. It later became known as ‘the Act of No Choice’.
Fifty years after votes were cast; the referendum could still present an opportunity for West Papuan independence.
In May this year, British MP Robert Courts spoke in the House of Commons, noting that: “Fundamental questions about the legitimacy of the so-called Act of Free Choice undermine the very legitimacy of Indonesian rule in West Papua’”
Complicating the push for self-determination is having an Indonesian as vice-chair of the decolonisation committee, the one UN mechanism that could trigger a new referendum vote for West Papuans.
The fortunes of West Papua are in contrast to Timor Leste, which was given an independence referendum in 1999 following 24 years under Indonesian rule.
After 79 per cent of voters favoured independence, violence erupted across the country led by anti-independence militia and the Indonesian National Army, leaving between 1,000-2,000 people dead before Australian peacekeeping forces arrived to restore order.
Last month, the country marked 20 years since the independence vote. And after making her own sacrifices, Koman has called for Australia to play a role in the West Papua conflict.
“Australia has been silent on the West Papua issue, maybe because of the Lombok Treaty (a bi-lateral security agreement between Indonesia and Australia),” she says.
“Everyone has a right to self-determination and this should prevail over bi-lateral agreements. I think Australia should take that kind of leadership again in the Pacific on West Papua issue as it did for East Timor.
“In the end this never ending conflict in West Papua will only be solved by a referendum on independence.”
Will the world continue to look away as West Papuans and their culture disappear into the annals of academic journals?
Not if Veronica Koman can help it.
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