Video Interview: Herman Wainggai, Former Political Prisoner of West Papua
In this On The Ground interview, ICNC speaks with Herman Wainggai, one of the leaders of West Papua’s nonviolent, self-determination struggle against the Indonesian government.
Herman Wainggai is a West Papuan educator and organizer who has dedicated his life to his homeland’s self determination movement. In January 2006 Herman was granted political asylum in Australia after he and 42 other West Papuans escaped the island, crossing the Arafura Sea in a traditional double-outrigger canoe. Since then he’s been able to take on a new role as an advocate for West Papuan liberation by raising international awareness of the struggle.
Once part of the Dutch East Indies, West Papua underwent a rapid decolonization process in which administrative control over the territory was handed to Indonesia in 1963 following one year of UN transitional rule. Interested in gaining control of West Papua’s rich natural resources, Indonesia’s formal acquisition of the territory was affirmed in 1969 after a manipulated election known as the Act of Free Choice.
Only a hand-selected and extremely frightened 0.01% of the population were allowed to vote in the referendum, after Indonesia waged a campaign of blatant intimidation, disappearances, arrests and killings. None of this was ever cited as cause to challenge the legitimacy of the Act of Free Choice, although the UN later acknowledged that an overwhelming majority of West Papuans were not in favor of becoming Indonesians. These events triggered a self-determination struggle in which Indonesian rule was initially challenged by a small, poorly equipped band of guerilla fighters.
Things started to change in the 1980s when leaders of the movement, one of them being Herman’s uncle Thomas Wainggai, started to adopt Gandhian nonviolence as the movement’s central strategy. The transition from guerrilla fighting to popular resistance democratized the struggle allowing students and everyday West Papuans to participate in it.
Although West Papuans from all walks of life became the movement’s new backbone, those who opposed Indonesia nonviolently still faced state-sanctioned imprisonment, torture, and killing when they tried to voice core grievances, including the social costs of environmentally destructive development projects, increased competition and conflict over land resources as the government promoted the migration of Indonesians to West Papua, and institutionalized racism in the economy, education and in government bureaucracy.
The Tools and Tactics
Early in the interview Herman explains that the most significant force driving Indonesia’s domination of West Papua has always been the desire to profit from the territory’s natural resources. Jakarta has declared open season for international corporations eyeing those resources, in a land where laws protecting indigenous workers and their environment are virtually nonexistent. Like many other movements, the one for West Papuan self-determination is facing the headwind of a lucrative global commodities market driven by extractive industries and the states that facilitate them. Movement leaders such as Herman have had to devise clever strategies and tactics in order to overcome this tremendously challenging set of conditions.
Most recently, in July 2011, West Papuans organized a strike against one of the world’s largest mining companies, U.S.-based Freeport McMoRan. During the eight-day-long strike, roughly half of the workers laid down their tools at the world’s largest gold and copper mine causing the company to experience losses of roughly $95,000 per day. The strike ended when the company agreed to pay workers for their time spent striking and enter negotiations with union organizers demanding higher wages and humane working conditions. Negotiations were set to wrap up in late August 2011. Many West Papuans are hopeful that this round of negotiations will be as successful as they were in 2007 when workers secured a 98% pay increase following a similar series of events.
Aside from economic hardships, the movement is forced to operate under the constant threat of violence. West Papuans are trying to mute this violence by exposing it to the international community, although it has not been easy to get people outside of Oceania to pay attention to a struggle that they had never heard of. For example, only Australians and New Zealanders generally know that West Papuans are culturally and ethnically distinct from Javanese Indonesians.
The idea of cultural independence is tightly woven into the fabric of West Papuan resistance as it attempts to hold fast against Indonesia’s effort to absorb it. Cultural resisters often incorporate traditional chants, songs, symbols and dances into various acts of resistance as a means of building unity as well as expressing their distinctive identity. The most important symbol of West Papuan self-determination is the Morning Star flag. Raising or displaying the flag is considered to be an incendiary act of political defiance, and until recently, anyone caught doing so was arrested by Indonesian forces.
In the film Struggle in Paradise, Herman travels to the Melbourne Arts Center in Australia with a group of West Papuans who performed traditional songs and dances. In the interview, Herman mentions anthropologist and musician Arnold Ap as one of the actors that guided the struggle from a guerrilla insurgency to a popular movement. During the 1970s and 1980s Ap, along with his music group Mambesak, were some of the first showcase elements of West Papuan culture in defiance of Indonesian rule. Before his assassination in 1984, he was successful in establishing a sense of cultural identity in a time when even identifying as Melanesian or West Papuan was an act of subversion.
The Indonesian government remains very restrictive in allowing foreign media, NGOs, or diplomats to enter West Papua. This, along with the island’s geographic isolation, presents significant challenges to anyone intent on getting information in and out of the territory. Like Herman’s voyage in 2005, someone seeking to share information with the outside world had to take great risks, often having to leave secretly on small boats. But now, as technology such as the internet, camera phones, and social media have begun to reach even the world’s most remote populations, these barriers are being breached.
In 2010 a graphic video of Indonesian soldiers torturing an unarmed West Papuan man sparked international outrage after it appeared on YouTube. Amnesty International as well as other human rights groups caught wind of the story and urged that the soldiers be tried for torture. Despite its brutality, the video was a small victory for the movement because it presented evidence forcing Indonesia to acknowledge its military abuses in the region. As a political refugee now in the West, Herman functions as an outlet for such stories as well as someone with the capacity to share them with a wider international audience.
He is currently working out of Washington, D.C. where he can focus on his advocacy work by lobbying the U.S. government and U.S. outlets of international organizations. By doing this Herman is tackling one of the movement’s most important challenges: raising international awareness. The practical benefits of which could extend to freeing political prisoners, exposing human rights abuses, economic injustice, and cultural marginalization of the West Papuan people.
The Stumbling Blocks
Herman faces the challenge of educating not only the outside world but various audiences within West Papua as well. As an organizer, Herman understands that the capacity for a movement or campaign to educate its own participants is critical to achieving success, and as an educator he understands that the skills needed to overcome West Papua’s various problems need to be widely distributed amongst its population. It is very challenging for people like Herman to teach nonviolent resistance strategies within West Papua. Aside from the Indonesian government, those attempting to spread knowledge have to make long journeys to remote areas in a land with little infrastructure.
While living in Australia, Herman was able to travel to Papua New Guinea where he conducted civil resistance workshops for West Papuan activists willing make the extremely dangerous boat trip from West Papuan waters controlled by the Indonesian navy to the shores of Papua New Guinea. These trips also allowed Herman to hear the latest news from the front lines of the struggle. Many activists and organizers brought news of unrelenting repression, imprisonment and torture; some tell their stories in a short Youtube video called Struggle in Paradise. (LINK) The film features Herman along with a number of other activists discussing the various obstacles and how their hardships have driven some to lose hope and flee the island.
Since his days as a student activist, Herman has been arrested and jailed several times, once for two years. In the interview he describes the experience of being imprisoned for fundraising and organizing a student protest.
“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 they told me the other day the Indonesian army just killed one West Papuan student activist in the room.”
Herman is using new technologies, cultural resistance, training and advocacy to undermine the Indonesian government’s efforts to keep curious global eyes away from West Papua, but as with any case of injustice, international awareness is only aspect one piece of the effort to instigate action.
In 2001 a Special Autonomy package was designed to re-route tax revenue generated by West Papuan development projects from Jakarta into West Papua’s provincial government. In theory this package was supposed to help West Papuans achieve a higher level of freedom and economic benefits while remaining part of Indonesia. But in reality the province lacks the capacity to marshal West Papuan representation and the bureaucratic infrastructure to redistribute the revenue appropriately. Special Autonomy did open up some political space; for example, raising the Morning Star flag is no longer illegal but is still considered to be politically subversive. Today some West Papuans have been able to take part in the provincial government but have still been unable to address many of the population’s core grievances. Because of this, many West Papuans still believe that civil resistance continues to be the most viable option. Despite all the hardships Herman has endured, and all the difficulties he continues to face, he pursues the mission of his people with passion, optimism, and affability. Herman says “The West Papuan people, we don’t have guns but we have the truth, something that the Indonesian government can’t take away from us.”
In this case, Herman’s work as an educator suggests that the most critical factor in this struggle has been and remains the movement’s capacity to educate its people about their opportunity to engage in a worthwhile struggle on their own behalf, distributing the skills needed for effective civil resistance while also raising international awareness.