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The Struggle of West Papua – Herman Wainggai

March 1, 2017

Listen and Learn

By Leah Chartterji, George Mason University

Herman Wainggai and his uncle, Dr.Thom

What people share with someone is insightful; it is within these spaces that reveal the complexities of one’s identity as communicative sounds become interpreted by the listener. Furthermore, as people converse about their own lives with one another, a transformative experience is underway as both become challenged to make-meaning of the social engagement. Extracting from this framework and applying it to the anthropological method of life-history interviews, this becomes critical to grasp. As a participant shares meaningful parts of their life, in every facet, they have provided a rich gaze into their identity which the interviewer must then interpret. Here, is what the paper shall focus on. I had the opportunity to participate in a life-history interview with Herman, whom I interviewed. Moreover this paper will attempt to provide an in-depth glimpse into Herman’s life, where the latter portion of the paper will discuss distinct anthropological readings and discussions that complement the interview. Lastly I will examine the logistical nature of the life-history interview and the revelations, qualms, and enjoyments that arose from the conversation with Herman.

Herman Wainggai – Leader of Nonviolent Struggle in West Papua

First, the backdrop of this life-history interview took place on Monday September 26th, 2016 in a building on George Mason University’s campus. The setting was relatively quiet, however, there were other people around. We sat on a couch for about three hours with a coffee table next to us. Hence, this conversation was enacted in one-setting, where I used my iPhone 4 to record the conversation. While I did take notes during the interview, they reveal little in terms of non-verbal cues, but rather, are mainly on what Herman verbally said. Hence, it is the recording which I listened to after the interview (in numerous settings) that has provided me with incredibly rich data. While an arduous task, I transcribed certain parts and have benefitted tremendously from doing so; I have a thorough understanding of Herman’s life by attentively listening to the recording.

Now, given the free-range of choosing whomever, I thought of Herman almost immediately. Further, this is because I already knew his life was interesting since he spoke at a few meetings for the student organization that I am part of, which raises awareness for displaced peoples. Given this previous encounter with Herman combined with my desire to learn an in-depth understanding of his life, I emailed him about his participation in an interview with me. In his response, he was more than happy to partake in this interview and allotted a great duration of time amidst his busy life. As a whole, I told Herman how this interview was for my Anthropology class and he would be the focus of my paper.

Lastly, this paper can be under the category of applied anthropology given that Herman is involved in the West Papua conflict. Since the West Papua conflict receives little attention in the United States, I wanted to bring this issue to the forefront. Hence through this life-history interview, not only was I able to have a personal look into Herman’s life, I was also educated about Herman’s own involvement in the struggle for an independent West Papuan nation.

To better understand the richness and findings of this life-history interview, a brief overview of the West Papua conflict will be given; by no means is this an attempt to ‘sum-up’ the conflict, but rather, this is provided to act as a tool to navigate and fully appreciate Herman’s life. In its origin, West Papua was populated by Melanesians “some tens of thousands of years ago.”[1] Only recently was it colonized by the Netherlands in 1898, which began the domination by external forces. In this colonization period, the Dutch imposed themselves upon the islands that presently make up Indonesia. Yet when Indonesia broke free from the Dutch in 1949, the reign over West Papua was in limbo: it did not become part of an independent Indonesia, but, was intended to be an independent nation itself. This was pushed by the Dutch since they noticed how starkly different Indonesian and West Papuan were.[2]

Eventually in 1961, West Papua was an independent nation but this was short-lived since Indonesia wanted all of its former Dutch colonies within proximity. Hence, Indonesia penetrated West Papua and began its occupation. From this, a battle sparked between the Dutch, Indonesians, and those most affected—the indigenous West Papuans themselves. Yet amidst this conflict, Indonesia turned to the Soviet Union for help. But because the United States had a visceral disgust towards the spread of communism, the President at that time wrote a letter to the Dutch which urged the Netherlands to give Indonesia full control. From this anti-communist agenda, the United States schemed a meeting between the Netherlands and Indonesia which resulted in giving West Papua to the United Nations, but within a year, would be controlled by Indonesia.[3]

However in 1969, with “widespread resistance to Indonesian rule”[4]—after already heinous acts by the Indonesian military were perpetrated upon indigenous peoples—the United Nations declared a vote for self-determination which would either result in an independent West Papua, or continued Indonesia rule. With such an oppressive precedence enforced by Indonesia already, this free-choice has been marked as ‘no choice’: Indonesia selected a handful of people to vote and threatened to kill them if they voted for independence. Throughout all of this ordeal, the United Nations sat on the side-lines as intimidation pervaded the polls. Obviously, the vote led to a continuation of West Papua occupied by Indonesia. Furthermore, an agreement had been made two years before the vote in 1967 between Indonesia and the United States which allowed the United States mining corporation, Freeport, to extract from West Papua.[5] Hence, one could postulate—or simply follow the money—that Indonesia would never allow a genuine ‘free’ choice vote given the lucrative arrangement made two years prior.[6]

Currently, West Papua is under Indonesian occupation. While there was a chance for an independent West Papua after the Indonesian dictator Suharto fell and West Papuans declared independence, the Indonesian military quickly invaded to quell the excitement.[7] As a whole, this conflict is impregnated with domination, intimidation, genocidal acts, and, clearly, human rights violations. And this is not an exaggeration: it is estimated that “500,000 Papuans have been killed at the hands of Indonesian security forces.”[8] For West Papuans, history will be made when they become an independent nation, free, of Indonesian control.

Given the aforementioned background, the paper will shift towards the interview. Since the total duration was three hour longs, the objective is to describe valuable moments that Herman shared with me. For demographics, Herman is: male, in his late thirties, and is from West Papua, which has more than two-hundred and fifty tribes. He was born into a fishermen family on the coast, which consisted of two parents, four brothers, and two sisters. Due to Herman being the first-born, he set a role for his younger siblings. In terms of his relationship with his parents, as a teenager, Herman spent time with them which he enjoyed greatly. In particular, Herman was close with his Mom where he could “share openly” with her. While describing his Mom, he commented on her wonderful smile.

Since Herman grew up in a fisherman family, he said how “as kids, we helped our parents to sell fish” and how his Dad “everyday…he went fishing.” Further, since fishing was “part of the culture” this was Herman’s first education. Now when Herman became a teenager, he would set off for the water at 3:30AM where they would catch various fish. In these settings, he would be so far out “you couldn’t see any mainland island.” Yet as Herman got older, he eventually went to primary school where his Dad said, Herman, you “must enjoy our time every day, as a family, but I would like to see you, you must go to school” in order for Herman to learn. Hence, Herman learned “from the nature,” and fishermen, while “at the same time, sitting in the class listening to the teacher.” From these formative years, Herman acquired an appreciation for nature, as well as, a ‘formal’ education.

While Herman received a ‘formal’ education, the Indonesian government did not teach West Papuan culture; instead they “brainwashed” students. Hence, it was the duty of parents to transmit West Papuan culture and history to their children. For Herman, he was seven years old when he learned about Dutch colonization. Now his first-hand experience of Indonesian occupation occurred on his morning runs. Before school he would wake up around 4:30AM to run for an hour. Within this exercise, he saw the “Indonesian military-police” but he did not ask his parents about this. In fact, Herman was not frightened at all, and kept running. Also since his parents’ house was near the main street—which is where the military ran and sang through—he was able to hear the military as they passed by.

With time, Herman soon became involved in the political struggle for an independent West Papua. This is not surprising, given that his own Uncle was an “influential leader.” Furthermore, a pivotal moment in Herman’s life occurred when he witnessed his Uncle’s arrest. This occurrence happened at a soccer stadium downtown where his Uncle led the protest. Here, he witnessed torture and intimidation with his “own eyes.” This intense event was in December of 1988 when Herman was a teenager. When his Uncle was arrested they took him via truck to the Indonesian military headquarters, where he was sentenced for twenty years. Fortunately, his Dad and he were able to visit the prison twice a week—but only for less than one hour. When they came to visit, they brought food for his Uncle since he did not to eat prison food because it could be poisoned. Upon arrival, the prison guards would use their bayonets to check the food, and also, their bodies. Herman said they would “ask us to take off our clothes, pants, and just strip uh nothing.” Within this time-frame, Herman shifted to University and became more active in the political movement. Here, he taught people about “non-violence resistance” just as his Uncle had taught them.

Yet in 1991 his Uncle was moved to a prison in Indonesia, since the government noticed many “protests happening.” Additionally, this was compounded by the numerous visitors his Uncle had; the government aimed to suppress any hopes people had related to independence. Further, Herman was unware of this movement until his Uncle was already in Jakarta, the capital of Indonesia. During his Uncle’s prison time in Jakarta, Herman was still actively involved in the movement. But only five years later, while in prison, Herman’s Uncle was killed by the government. After his death, further complications arose: Indonesia refused to send his body back to West Papua. Fortunately Herman wrote a letter to the Indonesian government where “Amnesty international” acted as a facilitator. Then, within two argumentative weeks, his Uncle’s body was returned to West Papua. When it was sent, Indonesia also returned certain possessions of his Uncle. One of the items which he found, was a note addressed to “Amnesty International red-cross delta,” which described his Uncle’s “physical body during the time” of his death. From his Uncle’s description, the culprit of his physical ailments denote poison. For Herman, and the West Papuan people, this was an immense loss. Herman said how it was like losing Nelson Mandela.

After this great loss, Herman left West Papua and migrated East to Papua New Guinea. Before he left, he went to his Uncle’s cemetery and explained how it was better that he left since he was targeted by the government due to his political involvements. Once he landed in Papua New Guinea, Herman spent a total of six years (1996-1999) here, where he learnt Tongue Pigeon and English. Furthermore, during this time Herman worked heavily on the independence movement, where he even conducted meetings on the border of West Papua and Papua New Guinea with students. Also he began lobbying in the Pacific where he “attended different international” conferences. However, he eventually returned to West Papua in 2000. When finally home, Herman continued his work and organized a protest where “almost 5,000 people” walked the streets. Yet because of this protest, Herman was arrested for the first time and was charged for twenty years. Thankfully the lawyer reduced his sentence—by proving he was a “non-violence” leader—to four months, from December 2000-March 2001.

While four months in prison may deter people, it only fueled Herman’s dream for independence. Hence, he went back to work when he was released. Yet in 2002 after he returned from a forum in Fiji, he was arrested because he was leading another protest. This time, the sentence was much harsher: two years. In prison, Herman described how his “eyes turned yellow” since he was in a “dark room” which was “torture.” Combined with this, more psychological torture occurred when he was forced to stare in the glaring sun after being captive in a dark room. Overall, this prison experience was drenched in “torture, intimidation” and a loss of rights. During this time, it was Herman’s faith that played a major role, where he would pray and fast.

When Herman was released—for the second time—he intended to work towards freedom like usual. But, his parents had another plan: they wanted him to escape. For them, the risks and costs were too high for him to stay. Following his parents’ advice, Herman soon left. To aid his departure, his father created a boat that took three months to make. Once finished, he showed Herman and said “Herman, son, this is a boat,” and “I didn’t wanted to see you die, as my brother died (poison), it’s better” that you leave now. Within this fragile conversation, Herman wept. Yet in order for him to leave, Herman prepared since he had to avoid the Indonesian military bases. After one year, his friends and he sailed off from the North side of West Papua to the South-Western border called Merauke.

Shifting forward to January 13th 2006, Herman said his final good-byes to his parents. It was in this boat trip that he took forty-three people to Australia in a “small canoe.” While out on the ocean they “nearly died” due to the weather and lack of food. But eventually, they saw an island that was slowly getting “bigger, bigger, bigger, bigger” as they got closer—but they had no clue what this land mass was. Hence, Herman told seven friends to swim and see what it was. Fortunately this land mass was their destination: they had reached Australia. But they spent the night on this land, and then, were greeted by Australian officials the next day. As Herman later described, this was one of the happiest moments in his life which was special since he was “together with the friends” on the boat, which made a “collective happiness together.”

After the astounding arrival, Herman was under Australian protection for three years in Melbourne. Here, for the first few months, the media talked about how West Papuans had washed upon Australian shores. Given this platform, Herman became a “spokesperson” and took advantage of the globalized media which brought attention to the West Papua conflict.

While residing in Melbourne for three years, in 2009 he was invited to a conference in Boston by the International Center on Non-Violence Conflict. Herman accepted and went to the conference, which was also his first time in the United States. In addition to the Boston meeting, he lobbied at the United Nations. After these events, he went back to Australia but soon returned to the United States in September 2010 to attend a United States Congressional Hearing. At this meeting, he became aware of a Professor who was a board member on the International Center on Non-Violence (who works at George Mason University). Hence it was at this Congressional Hearing where Herman was told to “talk to this person,” where Herman soon contacted them. Once they met, the Professor invited Herman to speak at a symposium on Democracy and Pacific in November 2010, that same year.

After the symposium, Herman lobbied on Capitol Hill then returned to Australia. Then the following year, he came back in June 2011 since he was invited to lobby with an international torture advocacy group. At this time, he still worked with the Professor, and when he returned to Australia he applied for a “visiting scholar” in the United States. Once he was accepted in July 2012, he has been in the United States ever since. His trip to the United States marked an unusual but welcoming turn in his life. Herman continues his lobbying work at the US Congress and the United Nations on behalf of his people.

While Herman is physically miles away from his home, he still works on the independence movement by lobbying, speaking with people, and other ways to bring freedom to West Papua. From the interview, it was obvious that Herman was constantly advocating for his people. This is most evident, as he described how when he begins thinking of himself, that means he is not thinking about West Papua; “every day, every night” he thinks about his people. More descriptively he said that “his life does not belong to” to him anymore. Rather, his life is dedicated to the struggle for an independent West Papua. Given that he has spent twenty-six years of his life, he is fueled by intense hopes. When asked about if he has thought about giving up, he chuckled and said “never.” During this moment of the conversation I thought he would expand more, yet he hardly did: the concept of giving up does not even enter his mind. But while he strives each day to create change, he admits how it is not that easy, since at the United Nations level there are “a lot of thing to do” such as lobbying. The bottom line is, is that there are many layers involved where those in West Papua must keep the momentum for change, and outsiders must work as well, or else, their lobbying is for “nothing.” Simply put, these forces must work simultaneously to reach an independent nation.

Herman’s dream, is that by 2020, West Papua will be an independent nation. But for this to happen, “West Papua needs international intervention”—“particularly from the UN.” With this involvement with the United Nations, it would play two roles. First, it would legally recognize the independence of West Papua, and if Indonesia refuses, the United Nations would mandate a vote for self-determination—but not resembling the 1967 ‘free choice.’ For Herman, freedom means that West Papuans “enjoy the life in their own country without any” intimidation, torture, and discrimination towards West Papuans. Further, they must “feel like they live in their own country and not feel strange.” While this is the current state, Herman was elated as he envisioned that in ten years West Papua will be free, and he will be eating his favorite fish, playing his favorite sports, and “swimming every day.”

As a whole, the interview process was an interesting experience. Throughout the interview the main obstacle was to listen and process what Herman said simultaneously. Especially given that this interview was rich with meaning, I wanted to write certain things down but while also being attentive to what Herman said. Yet I made a decision: I took rudimentary notes so I could be present in the conversation, rather than me ‘making-meaning’ in the moment. Since I used a recorder, this allowed me the privilege to do so. Now the interaction itself was pleasant, where Herman and I developed a positive dynamic which allowed a steady flow of conversation. Taking these into account, there are a certain elements I would do differently. The first, is that since I had trouble finding a somewhat private space, I would make sure next time to either reserve a space, or find a space ahead of the interview (about a week). The other aspect I could greatly improve on, is being able to listen and process (make-meaning) at the same time. Yet obviously this takes practice, and I still am unsure whether this is an acceptable approach since when someone is speaking, one should try to be fully present. Also creating questions was somewhat hard, where some may have been ‘leading.’ Hence I can create better questions next time.

Lastly, the paper will draw upon certain readings and discussions we had in class. The first reading is by Fogelson, who poses the question “Who possesses history?”[9] From the interview, it is clear that history is not possessed by any one person. But rather, histories are subjective narratives. Yet typically, people view those with power as ‘possessing’ it, where marginalized people are an afterthought. Further, it was demonstrated through this interview that it is not the Indonesian government who conquers history and events; history involves all parties involved in the unfolding events. What this means then, whether one is observing (United Nations), dominating (Indonesians, Americans, Dutch), or being oppressed (West Papuans), each have their own historical narrative.

For the other reading which heavily related to the interview, was Portelli’s. In the first part of the book, he talks about how “in the field situation, “upside-down” researchers do not study informants, but learn from them, and allow themselves to be “studied” in turn.”[10] Throughout the interview experience I had this same framework, where I was learning from Herman, where I tried to reduce any signs of ‘imposing’ myself as a ‘researcher’ of some sort. By doing so, this allows a blur between researcher-participant where both are engaged in an impactful conversation. On this same concept of interaction, in class we talked about how a transference experience happens amidst the inter-subjective dialogue. It is within life-history interviews, and overall dialogical settings, where this occurs.

Also, Portelli discusses how transcriptions “hardly ever coincide with the rhythms and pauses of the speaking subject, and therefore, end up by confining speech with grammatical and logical rules which it does not follow.”[11] When transcribing certain parts, I was confronted with this dilemma numerous times. For instance, when Herman would laugh or quietly say something, I felt helpless with the written word. What this shows me, is that paper cannot ever give justice to an oral conversation, and also that because of this, the transcriber has tremendous power in how the audience interprets dialogue. Also in class, we talked about these qualms when putting pen to paper from an oral source.

Lastly, perhaps the most critical factor about writing a life-history is the “unfinishedness” of it all.[12] Not only can people not explain their lives the same way each time, but also most importantly—just as we talked about in class—the people who we write about are not static people: regardless of a ‘finished product’ by no means does the person’s life end here. Rather, this was a sliver in time where someone encountered an anthropologist who would write about a participant’s life. Hence, it is a false romanticization when an anthropologist has not taken this into account.

As a whole, this life-history has been an enjoyment. Through this interview, I was able to learn about an incredible person’s life, while also being aware of my own methods when interviewing someone. From this conversation, I have learnt invaluable insights of Herman’s life which illuminated various facets of his identity. Like noted before, it is within these spaces that lay the foundation for a fascinating process to occur between participants.


Fogelson, Raymond D. “The Ethnohistory of Events and Nonevents.” Ethnohistory 36, no. 2 (1989): 133. doi:10.2307/482275.

“Free West Papua – History of West Papua.” 2016. Accessed October 12.

Portelli, Alessandro. The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (SUNY Series in Oral and Public History). State University of New York Press, 1991.

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