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Papua's 'iron lady' fights for justice

Yuliana Langowuyo is leading efforts to promote human rights in the restive region

Papua's 'iron lady' fights for justice

Yuliana Langowuyo says she will never give up fighting injustice and violence in Papua. (Photo supplied)

Decades of conflict in Indonesia’s Papua region have made it difficult for people to voice their concerns as it could mean facing intimidation, arrest, a prison term and in some cases death.

However, some people have conquered these fears, including Yuliana Langowuyo.

Terror and intimidation are all part of the fight against injustice for Papuans, says the 36-year-old lawyer who is gaining a reputation as an "iron lady" leading the fight for human rights in the restive region. 

Since joining the Franciscan Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC) in Papua in 2010 and being elected its executive director three years ago, she has received countless threats.

She has faced harassment from the military. Her camera was often seized and destroyed when she took photographs. Early this year, armed soldiers came twice to her office and forced her to give them the group’s reports.

The first laywoman to lead the male-dominated group, she brushes off the threats to concentrate on ending violence and injustice against Papuans. 

“I am resolved to serving the Church through this secretariat to be a voice for Papuans,” Langowuyo told UCA News. 

Established in 1998 and staffed by 10 people including two medical workers, the organization focuses on promoting peace efforts in a region caught in the grip of a low-level insurgency seeking independence.

This has led to rights abuses committed by security forces adopting a heavy-handed approach to suppressing it, according to activists  

For her unrivaled dedication, the Catholic Church in Papua also appointed Langowuyo coordinator of an inter-congregational and inter-diocesan justice and peace commission. Her role is to facilitate cooperation between the JPIC in Papua and the Indonesian Bishops’ Conference in promoting human rights in region. 

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‘My life is for the Church’

Langowuyo, a law graduate of Cenderawasih University in Jayapura, said she accepted the job to lead the Papua JPIC “because my life is for the Church.”

In the beginning, she was hesitant to accept such responsibility because she was a laywoman, while the other group members were mostly priests. But she eventually set her doubts aside to offer a professional service to help local people. 

“It was intimidating at first to work among priests who were smart and possessed excellent leadership skills. But they welcomed me and gave me the space to develop dialogue and communication,” she said.

But because all have the same goal — peace in Papua — everything is manageable, she said.

“The Church’s voice is very important and needed in the fight against violence, arrest, torture and murder of civilians,” she said.

Langowuyo said she and the JPIC educate Papuans on their rights and provide advocacy and campaigns for them. They also publish reports on human rights abuses to ensure public awareness of what is going on in the region.

One of the organization’s best-known publications is Memoria Passionis, a book series published annually which documents the suffering of Papuans, including  arrests and torture.

They also participate in peaceful protests, create human rights education modules in line with St. Francis’ spirituality, and train priests and seminarians studying at Fajar Timur School of Philosophy and Theology in the provincial capital Jayapura.

“If Papuans are tortured and treated unfairly, arrested or face repression from the security forces, our job is to help them by giving them treatment and legal aid,” she said.

Cooperation with other groups

Langowuyo said she has increased cooperation and information sharing with other church groups in Papua, the Indonesian bishops, National Human Rights Commission and the embassies of other countries in Jakarta.

“We build good relations with them because we cannot work alone and the Papuan issue is a national and international concern,” she said. 

Meanwhile, the provincial of the Franciscans in Papua, Father Gaby Ngga, said the congregation chose her because of her intellectual ability, energy and bravery.

“Langowuyo is a lawyer and has vast experience in advocacy. She is also a woman of integrity, so trust in her,” he told UCA News.

He said the JPIC has a mission to speak out against violence and injustice against Papuans, and she is an ideal choice to do this.

Sacred Heart Father Ansel Amo, who heads Merauke Archdiocese's JPIC Commission in Papua, said he has high expectations of Langowuyo’s future leadership.

“I hope she continues to be brave to speak up for the rights of indigenous Papuan communities because the local Church tends to be silent,” he told UCA News.

Franciscan Father Alsis Gonzaga, chairman of Franciscan Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation in Indonesia, praised Languwuyo’s leadership.

"Under her stewardship, the secretariat has provided a loud voice against injustice, human rights abuses and environmental exploitation in Papua,” he told UCA News.

The group’s contributions under Langowuyo have been significant, particularly through its annual reports on the perils facing the Papuan people.

“We use these reports during meetings with ministries or governmental officials in Jakarta,” he said. 

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