"On the Ground" Interview with West Papuan Activist Herman Wainggai

"On the Ground" Interview with West Papuan Activist Herman Wainggai

International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, 3 November 2010



Herman Wainggai

West Papua

Located on the western rim of the Pacific, bordering the independent state of Papua New Guinea, West Papua is a Melanesian nation in waiting. Under the Dutch the territory was the easternmost limit of the far-flung Dutch East Indies. On May 1, 1963, after less than one year of transitional rule by the United Nations, power was formerly transferred to the Republic of Indonesia. One condition of the transfer of administrative control was that there would be an internationally supervised act of self-determination. A sham ’referendum’ known as the ‘Act of Free Choice’, and supervised by the United Nations, took place between May and July 1969. On 19 November 1969 the United Nations General Assembly formally ‘took note’ that the results of the Act of Free Choice did not accurately or democratically represent the will of the people, however it still proceeded to recognise Indonesian government rule in West Papua. Since then the territory has been the scene of one of the most protracted, complex and volatile conflicts in the Pacific. Read full conflict summary.

My name is Herman Wainggai, I come from West Papua. West Papua is a part of Indonesia. Indonesia claims that it is one of the provinces. West Papua was handed to the Indonesian government without any consultation from the West Papuan people back in 1963. So ever since 1963 there had been a conflict between the Indonesian government and the Indigenous west Papuan people.

Why is Indonesia interested in maintaining control over West Papua?
HW: Basically, the Indonesian government just wants our resources. The Indonesian government doesn’t want the Papuan people, that is very clear until today. Many statesmen are done by the leader of the Indonesian government, like I said before, Ali Martobo, is the one Indonesian general. He said to the Papuan people, “if you want to fight for your right for freedom based on the nonviolent struggle you have to go to another planet, or you have to go to another star or moon. So you can build your nation over there not in this land.”

We have a lot of resources in our home land. The biggest is gold mining. In West Papua there’s a company called Freeport it’s the one biggest companies from America. So that a- you look at the economic interests from the American government and Indonesian government they don’t like Papuan people to be free because they want to be digging a lot of resources from our homeland, I think that’s the main reason.

Why doesn’t the international community know more about the struggle in West Papua?
Until now, many people of the outside world did not know what’s going on in West Papua because the men raised in Indonesia don’t want the outside world know. So they bend every single foreigner including journalists, organizations like IRC (international Red Cross) they bend. When I was in prison only one organization could visit us in prison to check up on our medical condition, the International Red Cross, we got help from them. They sent a lot of people messages about how bad the conditions are when people are living in jail. And Indonesia knows now that the outside world now gets reports from International Red Cross.

How did the struggle transform into a nonviolent movement?
Yes, in the past, 1960s-1970s, our oldest leaders, those living in the jungle called TPA that’s West Papuan liberation army, they just wanted to use guerrilla fighting as the way to achieve their goal. But that’s in the past, we started to learn from other leaders like “arnoraab” and Dr.Tom Wainggai and in the 1980s they tried to change the nature of our liberation to one based on the nonviolent struggle. And that started from the university, not the jungle, but started from the university how to influence from the lecturer then from the lecturer to the students and the students to their friends and then that’s how we tried to mobilize people from the campus, from the university, as a base for the nonviolent movement in West Papua.
What are the consequences of taking action against the Indonesian government?
There are a lot of student activists living in prison even for just organizing peaceful a protest or taking part in the nonviolent struggle. Like myself, I spent a couple times in jail as an ex political prisoner when I was 17 years old. I studied at the university involved with the student’s movement at that time in 1988 and the first time I got arrested together with the other student activists together with our other political leader in west Papua. We got arrested because we raised money “saflek” within the university and an Indonesian authority came to us and was arresting us.

The first day, when I got to the room where I was staying in, the Indonesian authorities did not allow me to use the toilet. He did not open the door for political prisoners. You wanted to go to the toilet but you cannot because the door is locked up and you can’t go out. They said, "Herman, this is your room you can stay here," but the place I stayed in was full of fresh blood on the walls and I was surprised because the next day when I asked someone why this room was full of blood and smells like something not good? And they told me the other day the Indonesian army just killed one West Papuan student activist in the room you were in and I said, "oh!"

And that’s one way they try to make you sick when you were in prison. We won’t forget about our uncle Dr. Tom Wainggai. He was poisoned when he was in prison. He died in prison when the Indonesian government sentenced him for 20 years. So this is like life - life in prison is extremely difficult.

What is your role in the movement now?
So one role I play is like an educator, how to train Papuan students to choose nonviolent struggle as our weapon. People power is our weapon, it is stronger than a gun. I’m living in Australia but I spend a few weeks in Papua New Guinea and try to talk with refugees after they cross the Papua New Guinea border and then we talk about the tactics and strategies. The Indonesian government looks at how Papuan activists mobilize people to take to the streets and thousands of people walk in the streets and they get scared. They try to block off every street every corner but they can’t stop a the West Papuan student movement force based on nonviolent struggle so I really like the language of nonviolent struggle.

How has technology changed the movement?
Mobile phones/Cell phones have really helped us communicate with each other. In the past we typed the information on a piece of paper and then handed out to different friends, different people but now we just text the so called language and now people can come. I’m living in “oasis” and some friends live in West Papua but we create a mailing list and we can share a general story and share information on what’s been happening in the US or in Australia, so that’s helped us to keep people updated on what’s been happening. Desmond Tutu said, no one can stop people when they decide they want to be free. West Papuan people; we don’t have guns but we have the truth, something that the Indonesian government can’t take away from us.

Learn more about West Papua's self-determination struggle by watching the videos below: