Interview with Herman Wainggai, a leader of a nonviolent movement in West Papua to discuss their fight for self determination
Indonesia came to absorb the region known as West Papua in 1969 following the withdrawal of the Dutch colonial administration. This occupation resulted in a protracted conflict over freedom and autonomy between the Indonesian government and the indigenous people of West Papua. For more than five decades, the West Papuans have organized many protests and ceremonies aimed at attaining self-determination or joining Papua New Guinea as part of a federation of independence states. This interview was conducted with Herman Wainggai, a leader of a nonviolent movement in West Papua to discuss their fight for self determination and prospects for a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
What are some of the challenges that you have faced in your struggle for freedom in West Papua faces?
There are many challenges that stand in the way in our fight for self-determination and freedom; physical and psychological torture, long term imprisonment, and death are some of severe challenges political activists and their families face every day. Growing up in the 1970s, I heard tons of sad stories about the circumstances leading up to the occupation of West Papua – my home, and the struggle that ensued. As I grew older, I came to witness the severe nature of the struggle. I witnessed many heartbreaking events that affected me tremendously. When I stepped and participated in the struggle and became a political activist, I was arrested twice and jailed just for leading peaceful indigenous people in public demonstration. In jail, I came to experience firsthand the horrible treatment of political prisoners and the real danger we faced just for speaking out peacefully about the history of our home and our disagreement with the way Indonesia took control of our people and land. Today, hundreds of younger activists are in jail, going through the same treatment I did in what I think violated international convention on human rights. The sad thing is that most of them are being arrested under false charges, yet, they are compelled to serve long prison terms without proper legal representations.
In your opinion, why do you think Indonesia is doing this?
These are not opinions, they are facts. Since Indonesia occupied West Papua in the 1960s, its main objective in keeping West Papua under its control was “militarization” of our lands. They do not want to give up West Papua to the pro-independence movement knowing that if West Papuans get the opportunity to vote for self-determination it will be the last time they [Indonesia] will be occupy our lands. In fact, there are more military and police posts throughout West Papua and they exert tremendous control of our indigenous people. Certain activities you see in democratic countries are banned in West Papua and the consequences of violating them often ranged from arrest, prolonged incarceration, or execution by order of the government. All of these actions by Indonesia are designed to keep West Papuans under control. What was invented during the days of Sukarno and Suharto remain unchanged even though the Indonesian government has gone through internal shake-ups in the late 1990s. Every president after Suharto has maintained this military approach. We are being denied our rights to the kind freedom enjoyed by our fellow Pacific Islanders – including Australia and New Zealand.
What are some of the next steps that you and other leaders are taking in your struggle?
The next steps we need to take and will continue to pursue is to cement our reputation in the region and then reaching out to the international community and the United Nations to recognize our struggles and our fight for self-determination. And to hold Indonesia to the standard of conducted required by all UN member states, which means that if Indonesia claims to be a Democratic country, it must also respect our rights to speech and expressions – meaning Indonesia must be held accountable for beating up innocent protesters or incarceration of indigenous West Papuans without the due process of law.
First, our reputation in the region is extremely important. Over the years, the Melanesian organization known as “Melanesian Spearhead Group” (MSG) has recognized our struggle as a struggle between an occupied indigenous Melanesian people and its occupier – Indonesia. Its decision to recognize the United Liberation Movement for West Papua as the legitimate West Papuan organization is a step in the right direction. It makes the externalization of our struggle.
Secondly, the United Nations involvement in our struggle goes back to the 1960s and it is crucial that the UN leadership corrects the wrongs of the past five decades. We know for a fact that the UN was complicit the occupation of our lands and for decades ignored our plea for reparation and restitution. However, the past few years, there’s hope that the UN is taking the course of our people in the right direction. It starts with the recognition of the “indigenous people” of the world, which gives us (West Papuans) the opportunity to express our opinions outside of Indonesia. This very declaration is crucial to our nonviolent resistant movement.
Finally, accountability and Indonesian obligation to transparency are what we hope to achieve in the long run. As peaceful political activists, our hope is to bring Indonesia to recognition that that controversial agreement known as the New York Agreement and the referendum known as the “Act of Free Choice” were at best passed without a single representation of indigenous West Papuans. The failure of giving our indigenous people at least a voice in these controversial agreements is synonymous to the “taxation without representation” that trigged the US Revolution and the subsequent founding of the United States of America. Recognizing would be the beginning of a new era. Furthermore, Indonesia must submit to transparency – acknowledging that West Papuans are entitled, as a unique indigenous people, to the freedom and rights protected by International laws on human rights. Meaning, Indonesia must come clean in how it handled matters related to West Papuans peaceful self-determination struggle. It is not enough for the Indonesian government to herald its constitution when in action; it violated its own laws and International human rights laws. These are things we are hoping to active with the ongoing meetings at the United Nations on “indigenous peoples” and their “protected rights”.
Above all, we will continue to work hard to bring our case to the UN. Our freedom cannot be achieved if there’s no intervention from the international community. If Indonesia insists West Papua belongs to Indonesia, by all means – let the people vote for a referendum. A vote for self-determination or “integration with Indonesia” is crucial for transparency. If the people don’t want to be ruled or suppressed, they will vote for their own self-determination. Thus, it is suffice to say that Indonesian refusal to hold a referendum is because West Papuans would vote for their own freedom.
What we have seen over the years is the government of Indonesia fighting extremely hard to prevent West Papuan issues from external attention. Instead of helping West Papuans transitioned to a free society, it has spent millions trying to sway opinions against West Papuans in the Pacific region. This is the action of a government that wants nothing to do with freedom and transparency. We don’t want to fight; we want our vote – we want to exercise our legal rights to vote for our future.
What are some of the steps that the international community is taking in this conflict?
Academics have written about our struggle providing important data about the deaths, abuses, and illegal imprisonment of ordinary West Papuans, but to this day the world pretends nothing is there to see. So much crime committed against our people and no one seemed to ask why. It’s been years since Indonesia banned journalists from visiting West Papua and the reason is Indonesia doesn’t want reporters in West Papua to tell the world what’s going on. They don’t want their mass arrests, execution, and imprisonment of innocent people reported to the world.
Thus, to this day, the International community in general, except a few Pacific Island nations, is not actively working on bringing West Papuan issue to the fore when it comes to debate on global issues, but there are important developments that we believe will break this deadlock. The human rights forums at the United Nations is a very good newly created forums for indigenous people’s issues across the world. We’ve been attending this forum since its opening in about five years ago. Earlier this year, representatives from West Papua and I met at the UNGA where we expressed our concerns over Indonesia’s handling of our struggle, before leaders of the UN and various indigenous organizations around the world. This is a crucial move by the UN and the International community which will bring spotlight to our own struggle.
To learn more, visit his blog at hermanwainggai.net