My name is Herman Wainggai. I was born and raised in West Papua in the early 1970s. We didn’t have money so I didn’t attend preschool as many well-to-do families in Jayapura during those years did. I waited till I was old enough to go to school, starting from Grade 1 to 12.
I went from one school to another and finally finished my senior high school near our house and that was my third school. Life wasn’t easy but I made it.
I studied hard as I was competing against some of the best students in West Papua, and I did particularly well especially in Math and Science. I was among the West Papuan students who were shortlisted for government scholarships. However, I was somehow left out from the final list, which is something I attributed to my last name. I will talk more about this in other pages.
Left out but undeterred, I enrolled at the Cenderawasih university to study law. This is where my uncle (Dr. Thom) was teaching prior to his arrest and incarceration, but the death of my uncle really affected me. He spent more time organizing than studying.
Becoming an activist
I became a political activist in the late 1980s watching my uncle being manhandled and dragged from Mandala stadium and sent to prison by a government so afraid of facing the truth about its occupation of West Papua. His only crime was that he declared West Papua, according to the terms of the Rome Agreement, an independent state of West Melanesia. I spent the next few weeks and months visiting him at military prison at Wamena. Each visit to see my uncle at the military penitentiary, I was convinced that the Indonesian regime was the most cruel and evil regime that didn’t belong in our homeland. I decided then that I’m going to follow his footsteps. I enrolled in one of teh universities and spent most of my time doing activism work – help organized rallies and worked with other organizations and leaders to protest against the government of Indonesia. My work consumes me and my time that I had little time to concentrate on my school, and eventually I left and concentrated on my work as an activist. And I have been doing this for three decades of my life.
Becoming an activist
After my uncle died in 1996, Jayapura descended into chaos. Political activists took to the streets and protested aggressively against the Indonesia government. After that, TNI was hot on the trails of those the organizers who were nabbed in every streets of Jayapura and sent to prison. As one of the leaders and nephew of Dr. Thom, I firmly believed that the Indonesian government was coming after me. Facing this danger, I had two choices: 1. to remain and fight peaceful and bravely, as my uncle did, for the freedom of our people or 2. escape and live to spread his words and dreams for West Papua around the world. I decided to take the later option. It was time to escape my lovely home.
On November 20, 1996, my family and I made arrangement to escape in the middle of the night to nearby PNG. When the time came, I went to my uncle’s grave and talked to him as if he was there listening. I promised him that I would be leaving Jayapura and I was going to take his words – his story, his dreams and aspirations to the International community. I kissed his grave and left on a boat to the rendezvous point where we met our smuggler and there I hugged my father and said and then I and two other activist leaders disappeared into the night. It was my first escaped from West Papua.
Papua New Guinea
The Island of New Guinea is divided into two – the Eastern portion of the Island is called Papua New Guinea (PNG). PNG was colonized by England and later administered by Australia up until 1973 when PNG gained its independence and became a free nation. On the Eastern side, however, Indonesia occupied it when the Netherlands abandoned in 1962 and turned it over to the UN. In 1969, after a fake election, the Indonesian government formally established its colonial rule in West Papua and has been the occupying power till now. The two sides shared a common land and sea border and in most cases common Melanesian cultural identity.
There was no problem escaping to West Papua. There is a huge West Papuan community made up of indigenous West Papuans who refused to live under Indonesia. Most of them live closed to the PNG/West Papuan border.
Working in exile
I lived in PNG for about three years – 1996 to 1999. In PNG, we continued our work in bringing to the public issue of the Indonesian illegal occupation of our lands and their treatment of political activists. We held very important workshops around PNG where we educated young people of what was going on back home. We also lobbied political and church leaders to support West Papuan freedom movement. Most of our workshops, however, were held at Vanimo near the border where we joined our activists who risked everything to cross the border into PNG at night to join our workshops. These activists returned to West Papua and led massive peaceful protests against the Indonesian government, and they are still raising West Papuan self-determination argument today and lead peaceful protests against Indonesian occupation of our lands.
Fall of Suharto 1999
For more than three decades of corruption and violent control of Indonesians, the people rose up against President Suharto. On May 21, 1998, after weeks and of nationwide relentless protests and violent crackdown by Indonesian police of protesters and their leaders, President Suharto resigned and handed over the presidency to his Vice President B.J. Habibie. It was the end of one of the most violent dictators in the world. His fall also brought promises of unity and reform. The incoming administration announced it was engaging in a series of reforms and that promised to usher in democracy and the rule of law. There was hope in the air. And for us West Papuan ‘Nonviolent activists’ it was an opportunity to put to test just how serious Indonesian government was
In 1999, after the fall of the Suharto regime, I returned to West Papua with the hope of bringing back our self-determination argument and force Indonesia to the negotiation table. I enrolled at one of the colleges in Jayapura and then teamed up with my colleagues to resume our activism work. Together, we led peaceful protests against the new government demanding our right to self-determination, independence, and end to Indonesian colonial occupation.
First Arrest (2000)
After days of planning, we announced our intention to march to downtown city to protest Indonesian occupation of our lands. In keeping with the ‘Nonviolent tradition’ Dr. Thom taught us, we always informed the Indonesian authority for transparency and for legal protection.
On December 14, 2000, we marched from Cenderawasih University to Port Numbay, Jayapura. We stopped at Imbi park where we raised the banned West Papuan flag and spoke to the crowd about the Indonesian occupation of our homeland. Shortly after our protest, we were arrested at the spot.We were taken and held at a police station cell until the next day. We were interrogated in the afternoon and until morning the next day. We were deprived of sleep but we hell our heads high and answered every question they threw at us.
The next day, I learned that my father was also arrested but in a different location. He was then brought to where we were staying. It was such a humiliating experience to see my frail father spending months with us in that cell, but reuniting with him gave me strength knowing we were fighting together.
We were held for about four months in the police prison while attending court hearing. We were charged with “Subversion” (Crime against the State – treason), which carries a penalty of 20 to life imprisonment. After spending four months behind bars and attending hearings, we were sentenced to four month in prison. However, credited for time already spent behind bars, we were released on the spot tor reunite with our families.
On March 14, 2002, I was arrested again by the Indonesian police. That year, the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) was meeting in Suva, Fiji, for its annual meeting. Prior to that meet, I received an invitation from a NGO in Fiji to travel to Fiji and lobby for West Papuan support. I didn’t think twice about the letter, I put my stuff together and embraced my parents and then slipped into PNG in the middle of the night. I then boarded the plane at Vanimo and flew to Port Moresby and got on a flight to Fiji via the Solomon Islands.
At Suva, I was detained till morning. Whether the decision to detain me was made between Fijian authority in consultation with Indonesia or not, there were so many unanswered questions related to that event. Click here to read the story!
Upon my return home, activists visited my at our home where we planned to launch another massive protests in downtown Jayapura. We met clandestinely and planned the events. We agreed to replicate our successful protest two years earlier. We planned to have all participants meet at Cenderawasih University and march to downtown Jayapura. After our final meeting, we wrote to inform the Indonesian government of our intention to protest and march all the way to Jayapura. We gave them the time and location of our proposed protest.
On the morning of December 14, we made our way to the university and realized that the TNI were all over the place waiting for us. They knew we were planning to raise the West Papuan Morning Star flag, and so they surrounded the flagpole with police cars and trucks to prevent it from happening. Unable to raise the banned West Papuan flag, our protesters marched around the campus waving our flag in the air and chanting freedom and anti-Indonesian slogan. They were extremely motivated and weren’t intimidated by the Indonesian police.
And as we gathered at university compound and more West Papuans showed up, the Indonesian police got agitated and decided to stop the protest right there. They moved in and harassed us. They asked questions and then walked around around arresting people they believed to be leaders of the protest. They arrested Jordan Ick, Edison Waromi, Bapa Kaniele, and me. They forced us into waiting cars and drove away. Looking back at our protesters saving and weeping, it was such a heart-wrenching experience!
We were taken to different rooms and interrogated for hours. I found myself in a small room with two angry police intelligence officers. They had guns dangling on their side as they grilled me for hours about our protest. As the hours drew on, one of the officers informed me that they were aware of what I was doing in Fiji. Other officers carrying automatic rifles entered the room and leave.
After hours of interrogation, the officers grew frustrated with me and threatened me. One of them put a pistol on the table and said to me – “we could make you disappear.” At that moment, I placed my life in the hands of God. I looked at the pistol as if I was just looking at a Bible and then I felt a certain calm feeling just came over me and that I didn’t scare of anything or anyone. If it was my time, I was ready for it. I was ready to die for what I believed in and nothing was going to intimidate me.
The next day, they released Bapa Kaniele but kept Mr. Ick, Waromi and I to face the courts. We were placed in a single room with nothing in it by old newspapers which we slept on for the duration of our time there. There was no toilet, no light, no water etc. Everything we in that room and it was disgusting!
I was charged with ‘Subversion’ which was the same crime my late Uncle Dr. Thom was charged with during his trial. My family had secured an attorney for me who fought on my behalf aggressively even though he is not an indigenous person. At the end of the trial, the prosecutors recommended that I spend the rest of my life behind bars. My attorney vehemently protested, arguing that I posed no threat to the state and that I was merely engaging in peaceful protests and that I cooperated fully with the investigators.
The Judge returned and handed down his judgement. We were sentenced to two years imprisonment effective immediately after the announcement. After the hearing, we were taken to Abepura prison which became our home for the next two years.