Mary Jane Veloso and being on different sides of the elephant

Jet Damazo-Santos

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Mary Jane Veloso and being on different sides of the elephant
Who's telling the truth? And who's lying? I think this is a case of everybody touching different parts of the elephant. I saw parts of what both sides saw.

Who really saved Mary Jane Veloso from execution that fateful night? 

The Philippine government has been patting its back for the last-minute diplomatic tactics employed to save her. But Celia Veloso, Mary Jane’s mother, decried this on Friday morning, saying the government didn’t do anything. It was all Migrante and the National Union of People’s Lawyers (NUPL), she said. 

Who’s telling the truth? And who’s lying? I think this is a case of everybody touching different parts of the elephant. I saw parts of what both sides saw, and I’ll strive to share them here as accurately as I can.  

Who did what?

I first found out about Mary Jane’s case in January 2015, long before Filipinos knew who she was. This means I’ve been talking to the Philippine embassy officials about her case even before Migrante and NUPL knew about it. 

At the time, they were preparing her first case review. They shared the background and the plans with me – to raise the translator issue – but asked me not to publish anything yet because they didn’t want to prejudice the upcoming case. 

This is an indisputable fact: The Philippine government hired Indonesian lawyers to appeal Mary Jane’s case, but they did not publicize what they were doing at the start.

I’ve raised my concern several times about the lack of publicity over Mary Jane’s case, but the embassy insisted they believed the legal route will have a better chance of saving her than publicity, which at the time was backfiring on the Australians. 

At one point, I was surprised to find out Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was in Yogyakarta visiting Mary Jane, and I complained that I wasn’t informed. The embassy officials said: “How did you know? We didn’t tell any media because we don’t want Indonesia to think we’re pressuring them.”

This was, I learned, the Philippine diplomatic way. 

What about the family?

The problem with this approach, though, was that no one else knew what was being done. So when the case review got rejected, it was easy for everyone else to say the government didn’t do anything. 

I called Maritess Veloso-Laurente the morning after the Supreme Court rejected the first case review. After I introduced myself and told her I was based in Jakarta, she said: “Is it true? Did the Supreme Court really junk my sister’s case? Are they really going to execute her?”

No one from the government had contacted the family yet. But then the truth was, the Indonesian Supreme Court at the time hadn’t even informed the lawyers and the Philippine embassy. We, the media, were able to report it first because the Supreme Court posted a summary of the decision on its website. But the actual copy of the decision wasn’t given to Mary Jane’s lawyers until two weeks later. 

I’m not sure exactly when Migrante and NUPL came in to help the family, but it’s easy for me to see why the family feels it owes everything to them. The two organizations extended the family a level of attention and care they did not see from the DFA or the Philippine embassy. 

The week in Cilacap

This tension between Migrante-NUPL and DFA-Philippine embassy representatives was evident during the week I spent embedded with them and the family in Cilacap, Central Java. 

The messaging from the family, Migrante and NUPL was consistent: The government hasn’t done enough and isn’t doing enough. Having covered the story from Jakarta, I was at first surprised at all this, because I saw here what the embassy had been doing. But for a family desperate to save their daughter, it was perhaps easy to equate failure to achieve something, to lack of action.   

The DFA representatives and the Philippine embassy, on the other hand, were of course insistent they’ve been doing all they can. But I also saw that their approach included working with the Indonesian government and following their rules. And this might have been interpreted as not completely looking after the interests of Mary Jane and her family. 

“They might get mad at us and that would jeopardize efforts to save Mary Jane,” was a line I constantly heard from embassy officials when I question them about certain decisions.  

Was the family barred from media? No.

Every morning when the family arrives at the Cilacap port, where they are to board to ferry to Nusakambangan prison island, we spend at least 30 minutes waiting either for the prosecutor to call or arrive. 

During this time, the family stays in the coaster while the lawyers – both Indonesian lawyer Ismail Muhammad and Filipino lawyer Edre Olalia – as well as Migrante International chairperson Connie Bragas-Regalado all give interviews to local media. 

I’ve asked other reporters who spent their waking days at that port – other families did not give interviews to media at the port either. Indonesian officials frowned upon it. 

On Monday, April 27, three members of the family – Celia, brother Christopher, and ex-husband Michael Candelaria – suddenly went out of the coaster with a banner calling on Jokowi to save Mary Jane. They said they wanted to be interviewed by local media. 

Nobody stopped them, but when they eventually went inside the port, I understand that Indonesian officials were irritated at the stunt they pulled and threatened to cancel visitation rights. 

But media had access to the family at other times. CNN Indonesia, Agence France-Presse, and Al Jazeera all conducted interviews with members of the family at the inn we were lodged in. I witnessed these interviews, and I even translated for Al Jazeera. 

Seeing the elephant

In the elephant story, blind men were touching different parts of the elephant and describing what they felt – the tusk, the leg, the tail – based on their own perspectives. They couldn’t agree on what they were touching, because they all just had one part of it. 

This entire tension, the comments from Friday, sadden me deeply because everyone has the same objective – to save Mary Jane. And that, by some incredible miracle, has been partially met. 

Which means there’s more to be done. And so I hope all parties can work together, with open minds, to see what each party is doing and contributing to the cause. Doing so would increase the chances of truly saving Mary Jane. –

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