Herman Wainggai (pronounced wine-guy) is a former political prisoner and advocate for West Papuan independence living in exile in the United States of America. His philosophy is one of non-violent resistance following in the tradition of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His thoughtful, introverted and soft-spoken nature is contrasted by the fiery passion he summons when speaking of his hopes regarding the destiny of his battered homeland and the future he envisions for his people.
Like many Papuans, Herman’s early life was marked by extreme poverty. His father Zadrach, a fisherman, and his mother Laurina hailed from Yapen Island, a small island off the north coast of West Papua. They moved to West Papua’s capital city of Jayapura in search of a better life where Herman, the oldest of six children, was born in 1973.
On December 14th, 1988, when Herman was just 16 years old, the brutality of the Indonesian occupation met his life in a very personal way. That was the day his uncle, Dr. Thom Wainggai, leading a protest at the Mandala Stadium in Jayapura, boldly declared — before hundreds of his fellow West Papuan brothers and sisters and a curious contingent of Indonesian military onlookers — that West Papua was a free nation and should no longer to be administered by Jakarta.
After this public declaration of independence he raised the Morning Star flag, a symbol of Papuan independence deemed subversive and illegal by Indonesian authorities. This triggered the Indonesian army who wasted no time brutally pouncing upon the unarmed and defenseless demonstrators. Herman recalls:
[The] West Papuans who gathered at the stadium that day were assaulted, arrested, forced to crawl, intimidated and beaten like animals. I saw my uncle trying to negotiate with the Indonesian military officers and pleading on behalf of those innocent protesters, but he could not persuade them to end the brutality… It was hopeless and I was powerless to help my uncle. All I could do was watch the brutal crackdown as if I was watching a Hollywood horror movie… Indonesian officers dragged my uncle away. I was devastated. My spirit was shattered.
Herman’s uncle was sentenced to 20 years behind bars following the flag-raising incident on December 14th, 1988. Eight years later, in 1996, Dr. Thomas Wainggai passed away while in prison, under extremely suspicious circumstances.
Shortly after his uncle’s imprisonment — during his senior year of high school — a scholarship Herman had earned through his academic achievements was mysteriously revoked. With that avenue seemingly unavailable, Herman turned his attention towards religious studies instead. He taught Sunday school at the local Evangelical Church where he broke out of his introverted shell and grew comfortable speaking in public. In spite of attempts to stall his academic career, Herman would go on to attend the Cenderawasih University, studying law and theology.
I began working and developing [my ideas on] non-violent resistance with legal arguments. I championed rational debate based on my understanding of the law, and I also encouraged political debate and an emphasis on the grace-filled virtues of justice, peace, and love – the essence of the Gospel of Christ.
At the age of twenty, in 1994, he founded the West Papua National Youth Awareness Team (WESTPANYAT) for the promotion of a Melanesian-centric “philosophy of a non-violent resistance” and “nation-building based on land rights.” By the age of 27, in 2000, the organization boasted 18,000 members throughout Papua New Guinea, Bougainville, the Solomon Islands, Fiji, Kanaki-New Caledonia, and Vanuatu. He also founded another organization, the West Papua Student Union (SONAMAPA) which mobilized and promoted reconciliation and unity between West Papuan leaders and their constituents. For his efforts, Herman was charged by the Indonesian government with subversion.
I was arrested and incarcerated [along with my father] in Abepura Prison for four months. The day I joined my father in prison was the worst day of my life.
The place was full of fresh blood on the walls and I was surprised because the next day when I asked someone why [my] room was full of blood and smelled like something awful, they told me the other day the Indonesian army killed a West Papuan student activist in the room I was put in and I said, ‘oh!’
After this brief stint in prison, Herman participated in the formation of the United West Papua National Front for Independence (UWPNFI) from which mushroomed the West Papua National Authority. He was tasked by Hilda Lini, the director of the Pacific Concerns Resource Center, with the creation of the Fiji-West Papua Foundation, an organization focused on lobbying the sixteen nations of the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF). In August of 2002, he was once again imprisoned, this time for two years.
Upon his release, Herman realized that he was not safe. He could be rearrested at any moment and left to rot in prison indefinitely, or worse, he could be assassinated, like many other Papuan leaders before him. He arranged a daring escape from West Papua to Australia with 42 other West Papuans via a canoe designed especially to navigate the treacherous waters of the Torres Strait. The canoe’s arrival upon Australia’s shores was a media sensation that received worldwide attention and strained diplomatic relations between Indonesia and Australia. The party was granted asylum after a good deal of legal posturing from all sides with ramifications to this day.
After several years advancing the cause of the West Papuan people in Australia, Herman made his way to the United States, seeking a broader platform and wider audience. In September of 2010 he attended the first US Congressional Hearing on West Papua. Based out of Washington, D.C. where he tirelessly works to widen his sphere of influence, and open diplomatic doors for the West Papuan cause, he regularly speaks at various human rights related conferences across the US, and has participated in several UN-sponsored events.