Indonesian Human Rights Lawyer Forced to Return State Scholarship

Indonesian lawyer Veronica Koman sees the move as "financial punishment" for speaking out about human rights issues in the Papua province.
August 13, 2020, 7:45am
Veronica Koman Papua Riots
Human rights lawyer Veronica Koman (left) via Facebook; Riots which occurred on August 19, 2019 in in Manokwari, Papua (right) by STRINGER/AFP

Indonesian human rights activist and lawyer Veronica Koman is being asked to return a state scholarship amounting to 773.8 million Rupiah ($53,000) that she received back in 2016, by the Education Fund Management Institute (LPDP) under the Indonesian Ministry of Finance.

The state-sponsored scholarship requires its recipients to return to Indonesia once they complete their studies abroad. According to local news site Detik.com, LPDP director Rionald Silaban claimed Koman didn’t return to Indonesia after earning her Master’s degree from the Australian National University two years ago.

The 32-year-old lawyer has been on the Indonesian police’s wanted list since September 2019. Koman, who now resides in Sydney, Australia, was accused of provoking unrest in Papua and spreading misinformation through her Twitter account. She was put on the wanted list because she didn’t show up when summoned by the police.

Since then, Interpol has been involved in her case. The Indonesian police also asked the Directorate General of Immigration to revoke Koman’s passport, as well as freeze her bank account in Indonesia.

“The scholarship requirements include agreeing to return to Indonesia once the student completes their study,” Silaban told local media.

LPDP claimed to have recommended mediation before asking her to return the scholarship fund but said they did not receive a response from her.

“She refused to go back to Indonesia,” they said.

But Koman refutes the government’s claims. In a statement published on her Facebook and Twitter accounts, Koman said that both LPDP and the Ministry of Finance imposed this “financial punishment” on her because she advocates for victims of human rights violations in Papua. She said she did return to Indonesia after her studies.

“I did return to Indonesia in September 2018 after completing a Masters of Law program at the Australian National University,” she wrote.

Koman said she stayed in Jayapura, the capital of Papua, to “provide pro-bono legal representation for West Papuan activists in three separate court proceedings in Timika, West Papua.” Since then, she claimed she has received death and rape threats.

“I hereby call on the Indonesian Ministry of Finance led by world-renowned Sri Mulyani to not join a list of government institutions that persecute human rights defenders and to acknowledge my post-study return to Indonesia,” she urged.

According to CNN Indonesia, Koman became a police target after she uploaded videos of demonstrations in the Papuan towns of Manokwari, Merauke, as well as in Jayapura, throughout August 2019. The demonstrations were triggered by the alleged racial abuse toward Papuan students in Surabaya, East Java.

Women rights activist Tunggal Pawestri told VICE News that even though Koman received a scholarship from the government, she still has the right to stand up for what she believes in.

“You receive a scholarship because of your commitment to building Indonesia. And the development of a country must promote justice,” she said.

She said that scholarship recipients should dedicate their lives to bringing justice to the people and not submit to government intimidation.

“I also got a scholarship during Suharto’s regime, but I wouldn’t be silent when the government was fascist. The recipients’ responsibility is to help people. People voted for the government, people are the mandate giver.”

Usman Hamid, Executive Director of Amnesty International Indonesia, says these actions present a serious threat to freedom of speech.

Koman isn’t the only one who was criminalized by the government for speaking out about Papua. Another activist, Surya Anta, was arrested for raising the Morning Star flag last September.

Human rights groups have repeatedly voiced concerns over human rights violations by the Indonesian government against indigenous Papuans, especially as pro-independence Papuans seek dialogue with the central government.