Remembering an innovative rights advocate

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Published @ Asia Catalyst Blog

After three weeks of hospitalization, Bali and Indonesia’s best-known drug user rights advocate I Gusti Ngurah Wahyunda passed away in early March. Wahyu, 31 years old, was the founder of the Indonesian Drug User Solidarity Association (IDUSA) and coordinator of Ikatan Korban Napza (IKON), a network of drug victims in Bali.

I honor him as a friend, activist, and an innovative fighter who built a movement to defend the human rights of drug users.

Wahyu was himself a former drug user who actively campaigned against drug use, implemented HIV/AIDS education and awareness programs, and promoted human rights for drug victims. He also formerly worked as Program Manager of Yayasan Kesehatan Bali (Yakeba), a Balinese health foundation, that focuses on harm reduction among IDUs.

In 2007, Wahyu founded IKON together with his colleagues, who were also mostly IDUs. They established themselves as a supportive community to defend themselves against abuses by the police. Their programs included IDU outreach and awareness-raising, public campaigns, policy advocacy, and rights documentation. All their programs were directed by IDUs.

Many IDUs in Indonesia see it as normal when their rights are violated by the police because as drug users, they are criminals in Indonesia. Thus the main concern of IKON was to empower IDUs to know their rights, so that they can defend them when arrested or imprisoned. IKON also led public campaigns to reframe the public view of IDU as victims of drug dependence, not criminals. IKON took the lead in promoting treatment for drug users at drug rehabilitation centers, instead of sentencing drug users to prison.

IKON started from zero. Wahyu and his colleagues had to begin by intensively teaching themselves about human rights. This was a new issue to them, as they had previously focused only on HIV/AIDS prevention. I was involved in this movement as an outside supporter and advisor. Our strategy was to focus on launching IKON by informing the media and public about the violence IDUs face. Our hope was that later this issue would be taken seriously and discussed at higher levels of government.

Growing out of this intensive self-education, we decided to conduct a peaceful demonstration. December 14, 2006 was a historic day for the movement for drug victims in Bali and even in Indonesia. We held a peaceful march at the Denpasar District Court and the Office of the State Attorney in Denpasar to commemorate International Human Rights Day. About 40 IDUs joined the demonstration.

This was the first time for IDUs in Bali to “come out”, claim their identity as victims, and demand that courts stop sentencing drug users to prison and instead send them to rehabilitation. Drawing on a phrase from the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movement, this action was like “coming out of the closet”. For me, it was incredible. Before, IDU had hidden away and were resigned if they were caught. Now, IDUs came forward and dared to speak. Wahyu took the lead, giving commands and speaking publicly. He marched in front with a megaphone, wearing a Mao cap, and tied a red and white ribbon to his right shoulder.

After this demonstration, Wahyu, IKON and Bali’s IDUs began to find their courage. They often took action to keep the momentum of the movement going to mark International Human Rights Day, Black Distribution of Drug Day, World AIDS Day, and others.

In addition to conventional demonstrations, they did some very unique and creative actions to get media attention. Because IDUs are often called “junkies” (like “junk”), they cleaned rubbish in public places to show that even garbage can be reused and recycled.

They wore masks when celebrating World AIDS Day to symbolize the hypocrisy of people who talk about HIV/AIDS but do nothing. They also created a monument to the many people who have died of HIV/AIDS by lining up hundreds of pairs of empty shoes. With creative and unique public actions like these, Wahyu and IKON quickly became known as prominent activists, especially among other IDUs and people living with HIV/AIDS.

IKON’s last demonstration was in June 2009. IKON urged Bali’s judge and attorney to replace prison for drug users with treatment. Their actions helped to spark a special decree from the Supreme Court referring to the 1997 Psychotropic Drugs Law and the 1997 Narcotics Law saying that Indonesian judges should send drug users to rehabilitation instead of to jail. This was the last protest I went to; afterwards, I heard from Wahyu that IKON was struggling with some internal challenges.

In the past months, I saw Wahyu rarely, keeping in touch through Facebook, email, and sometimes talking on the phone. The last time I saw him was on February 14th in hospital. He looked extremely thin and lay on the bed. He drank his ARV meds and showed me and some friends the cup. “F*ck ARV,” he said. We laughed.

A few days later, I got the bad news that Wahyu was gone. Safe journey, comrade.

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