Herman Wainggai
The man who never quit


The first time I was arrested for subversion, I was forced to sit at a table in a police station; an Indonesian police officer sat across from me and placed a gun on the table near his burly hands. I remember the gun was large and dark silver. He told me they could kill me if they wanted and there would be nothing my family could do. But in my mind’s eye, the gun was a bible and I realized that whether I am in prison or anywhere else, I am never alone. This gave me the strength to endure prison, and the resolve to fight harder, fight braver
Today, I live in Washington, D.C. where I continue my work - lobbying and looking for political support from congressional leaders and everyday Americans. I lobby for support from various countries at the United Nations and continue to raise the issue of West Papua in various UN committees.

- Herman Wainggai

    Nobel Peace Prize
Nominee, 2016

George Mason University
Arlington, Fairfax, VA

I am honored to be nominated for the 'Nobel Peace Prize' by the George Mason University (GMU). It is a blessing and honor to be recognized for my struggle against tyranny and oppression back home. I have dedicated my whole life to fighting dictatorship and colonial rule of my people and to be nominated for such a prestigeous award makes my fight and struggle meaningful.
My Mission

This is my story

My parents are from Yapen Island - a small Island off the coast of Northern West Papua. My parents moved to Jayapura where I was born in 1973. I’m the first born in my family. As a child, I learned from my father and other leaders the truth about our history; our land and the truth about the 1969 “Act of Free Choice (AOC)” that forced West Papua to integrate with Indonesia. For years, I watched my father and his brother Dr. Thom Wainggai participated in nonviolent activities. They influenced and nurtured my understanding of the practices and objectives their struggle was based upon. 

Childhood days
As a kid, I was a bit shy and quiet. I was the first child and so I spent most of the time at home, helping mom and dad. My dad is a very good fisherman and my mother is a homemaker. I would accompany my mother to Hamadi seafood market and sell my dad's "catch-of-the-day" and we would use the money to buy groceries and then put some on the side for my school fee. As I grew older, I accompanied my father on his fishing expeditions, those were good things. Things changed when my siblings came along - I was no longer bored. My father looked up to me to be the man in the house in his absence.

There were few pre-schools in Jayapura but only the affluent families in the city sent their children there. For poor people like us, we go straight to Grade 1. I did my Grade 1 – 12 in schools around Jayapura, near my home. Though I was shy, I excelled in my studies through hard work and personal commitment. I wanted to be a ‘Scientist’ or work in the field of science, so I focused more on Chemistry, Biology, Physics, and Math. In the end, I was among the 10 indigenous West Papuan students picked for academic scholarship; however, the Indonesian government excluded me from the final list. I was devasted. During those years, the Indonesian government had arrested my uncle Dr. Thom Wainggai for his political activism and he was going in and out of the Court House and eventually sentenced to 20 years in prison. I knew that the Indonesian government got rid of my name because I was Dr. Thom's nephew. Indonesia had just created another activist - me!

Overcoming Shyness
I overcame my shyness through participating in school and church activities. As a teenager, I started teaching Sunday school at our local Evangelical Christian Church (GKI). I learned to enjoy sharing God’s words and taught pupils how to appreciate life and have faith that God is always there for those who put their faith in him, even Melanesian Papuans. I taught at the Evangelical Christian Church (GKI) throughout my teens.
Between 1994 and 1996, I participated in the production of the ‘Jesus Film’ produced by Dr. Bill Bright (Campus Crusade for Christ International) in West Papua. This project freed me from my shyness and I was able to raise my voice and to inform Papuans of the importance of participating in the nonviolent struggle for our freedom - self-determination.

Political Activism
During the 1990s (when nearly all the 'West Melanesia' lecturers were incarcerated), I found myself leading the West Papuan self-determination movement. After Indonesia dropped my scholarship, I enrolled at the Cenderawasih University  majority in Law. Having seen the brutality against my people, I decided to join the mass peaceful protests against Indonesian and spent most of those years researching and studying the history of West Papua. I was at the forefront of developing non-violent resistance methods and legal arguments, political debates and an emphasis on the grace-filled virtues of justice, peace, and love. A passion for political development and social progressive ideology instilled in me by my uncle, Dr. Thomas Wainggai, who was - on the day of his arrest - a professor at Cenderawasih University. He was an intellectual and passionate nationalist. In 1988, he defied Indonesian government and laws by raising the West Papuan flag and declared West Papua as the Independent State of West Melanesia. He was arrested and incarcerated. I was organizing and leading protests against Indonesia when I learned that he was removed from West Papua and relocated to Jakarta. He was incarcerated in one of the toughest prisons, Cipineng Penitentiary, in Jakarta, Indonesia where he spent a few years before he was murdered.

My Mentor - Dr. Thom Wainggai                              
In the 1970s, Thom traveled to the University of Japan to study law at Okayama University. When he returned to West Papua in 1973, he was arrested for the first time because of his political activism. He was sentenced to six months in the Indonesian Army prison. After his release, he returned to Japan to complete his law degree. Shortly after completing his law degree, he traveled to the United States on a Fulbright Scholarship where he earned a Master's Degree and Ph.D. in political philosophy. The purpose of his higher education was not to remain in the United States, but rather to increase his knowledge and skills and then return to West Papua to continue his fight for freedom.
On December 14, 1988, Dr. Thom made a revelatory proclamation that Papuans are Melanesians with a strong cultural heritage that is distinctly West Melanesian and has no historical connection with the citizens of Indonesia. He described Melanesian woman as the “ the Birds of Paradise”, and Melanesian men as “Crown Pigeon”. His  proclamation was also very political, as it left an open space for him to describe West Papua as a Nation, a State and a Government with the goal of conforming to Western terminology and the politics they practice. In 1988 he was arrested for subversion and sentenced to 20 years in the army prison in Waena, Jayapura. His incarceration was the result of his fight for his conviction that a true democracy, administered by Melanesians, is the only acceptable solution for his people. He was eventually murdered for that very reason.

I have vivid memories of my many visits with Uncle Dr. Thom while he was imprisoned in Jayapura. Some of my memories I wished don't exist; they are simply frightening but are pretty much a part of me. I remember watching the Indonesian prison guards use the tip of their sharp bayonet to haphazardly rummage through the food that my father and I brought for uncle. Afterward, my father and I were stripped and searched as if were the most dangerous people ever walked the face of the earth. During these visits, the capricious guards were waiting for a justification to enforce further punishment. After all those visits, I came to the conclusion that these guards weren’t just upholding the prison rules and regulations; they really saw Melanesians people as dogs. The way they treated my uncle made me want to fight smarter, stronger, and braver for my people’s independence. I became an educator, mentor, and trainer of students committed to peacefully working together to make a positive change in the world and international advocating for West Papuan independence.

Everyone was well aware of the danger my uncle was in, but we were powerless to help him. Then, the inevitable happened: Dr. Thom was transferred to Jakarta, which made it impossible to visit him regularly as we wanted to. Soon, we received words that my beloved uncle had passed away in prison. He died alone in prison at the age of 61 because of the duplicitous act of poisoning his food. Thousands of Melanesians were overcome with grief upon hearing of Dr. Thom’s death. My family had just lost its brightest and most respected member; we lost an exceptional man – one who faithfully served Papuans as a leader, an educator, an activist, a friend, and a beloved family member. The next day, the news headlines all over Indonesia referred to him as the “Nelson Mandela of Irian Jaya” – a label Papuans saw fitting for their hero. For me, he was mere than that, he was my teacher. His death affected me in ways I couldn’t describe. I had embraced his course, now it was time to take it to the next level. Since admitted to Cenderawasih University in 1992, I dedicated myself to the course leaving little room to study and read. We had organized grassroots organizations all over Jayapura and I realized that continuing on would affect my studies. Around 1993, I decided to quit school and concentrate on organizing and raising awareness about Indonesia’s dark history and the illegal occupation of my land and people.

At the age of 20, I founded the West Papua National Youth Awareness Team (WESTPANYAT). WESTPANYAT's objective was to promote 'West Melanesia' philosophy of non-violent resistance and nation-making based on land rights and responsibilities. I modeled that after Dr. Thom’s teachings, which were based on “peaceful resistance”. Beginning as an organization of seven, its clandestine workshops were disciplined and popular among young activists – mostly from the university. By 2000, there were eighteen thousand WESTPANYAT's raising awareness of Melanesian cultures, identities, and beliefs in West Papua, PNG, Bougainville, the Solomons, Fiji, Kanaki, and Vanuatu.
In addition to WESTPANYAT, another student organization was formed – the West Papua Student Union (SONAMAPA). The organization was created to mobilize and facilitate reconciliation and unity between West Papuan leaders who were at that time fractured by self-interest. The movement solidified our base and then we turned our attention to the Indonesian government with the intention of agitating the self-determination question. It was time to bring back the argument to the forefront. This time, Indonesia was going to face a movement without weapons, but a movement of Melanesians armed with legal and rational arguments. We wanted to challenge the Indonesian government and forced them to violate International Laws by forcing them to debate us in the public. We were going to raise the West Papuan flag no matter what the cost was. If Indonesia claimed to be an honorable member of the UN who honors the charter of that organization, we were going to force them to keep their words. It was a gamble that landed us in jail, but one that demonstrated Indonesia’s willingness to violate its own “freedom clause” and the international laws they are obligated to honor.

Political Prisoner - 2000-2001
In 2000, SONAMAPA brought sixteen West Papuan political organizations together during a meeting at AWAWI on the PNG –Indonesian border. All the organizations reached an agreement and unified. Having united our various organizations, we returned to West Papua where we gathered at Cenderawasih University and marched all the way to Jayapura city. As anticipated, the police and soldiers were all over us, trying to prevent us from reaching Imbi Park, but we pressed on. At the park, we raised the West Papuan flag. I and other leaders were arrested and charged with subversion and incarcerated at a Police Station for four months. My father was also arrested but in a different place and time.
On December 14th, 2000, they brought my father to where I was. We were held in the same room: no bed - just newspapers spread on the floor which we used as our bed. The room was dark, dusty, no running water, no toilet, and no lights. Everything we did, we did it inside that room. We didn't know if it was day or night until we head Christmas carol - it was Christmas 2000. It was hell; designed to break our spirit. Those were the worst days of my life. I was young and I could take it, but for my dad; he was in his 50s, mentally strong but frail.
After few court hearings and we were credited for time served (4 months) and so we were released on the same day - the day when the judgment was handed down in 2001. In the end, we brought attention to Indonesia’s militarization of West Papua and demonstrated just how evil the Indonesian police and military are; they are as bad as the NAZI police of Germany in pre-World War II era.

Two years later, the AWAWI signatories set up the United West Papua National Front for Independence from which, the West Papua National Authority mushroomed.

Political Prisoner: 2002-2004
I went into exile after my first experience in an Indonesian prison. I spent about a year in Papua New Guinea learning English and Tok Pijin and holding political activities and 'Nonviolent training workshops' near the border between Indonesia and PNG. During one such regional meeting, we met with representatives from all over Melanesia. Activists from Bougainville, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, and Solomon Islands attended that meeting. The Fiji delegation suggested that a West Papuan delegation should attend the Pacific Islands Forum (PIF) in Suva, Fiji. In 2002, I received a formal invitation from Hilda Lini, the director of the Pacific Concerned Resource Center (PCRC) to travel to Fiji. I was in Jayapura and I had to cross the border by sea, in the middle of the night, to fly to Fiji. In Fiji, we teamed up with other advocacy groups to create the Fiji-West Papua Foundation. In this foundation, our delegation instructed Fijian members in lobbying techniques, the necessary skills to increase their base of support and distributed writings to the sixteen members of the Pacific Island Forum (PIF) countries. In August 2002, the Pacific Island Forum was officially launched and we held various meetings calling for them to support West Papua. The media reported and broadcasted our requests to the PIF members.
After my 6 months in Fiji, I returned to West Papua, but as we attempted to march to downtown Jayapura again to mark the day in which Dr. Thom Wainggai was arrested, I was again arrested and charged with "Subversion": this time, the Indonesian government showed no mercy. I was sentenced to two grueling years behind bars. I served my time in Abepura prison, where my uncle was kept for sometimes before he was transferred to Jakarta. This is home to some of the worst criminals in West Papua, but our cell was isolated from the mainstream prison. It was my home for the next two years.
I thought about many things during my incarceration but then I thought about escape. This thought bugged me for sometimes until I had the guts to talk to my father about it in a subtle way. I asked him if he knew how to build a canoe. He smiled and I knew he understood what I meant. My uncle had been kept in prison for a while and then transferred to Jakarta where he died, and I didn’t want to go down that same road. This is what they do to "political prisoners": lock them down, isolate them, demoralize then and eventually execute them. There’s no other way to silence a political prisoner with profound political beliefs. He would have continued with his work even after serving 20 years in prison. That day, I made up my mind; it would be my last time in an Indonesian jail.
The year 2004 arrived and my term in prison term expired. I walked out, turned and look at the prison for the last time, knowing in my heart I would never return to this prison – never! I was going to escape. I didn’t know how or when, but I was determined not to live under NAZI Indonesian rule.

The great escape

Once a political activist, always a political activist

Political prisoners are a special breed of people, they are hard to break. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought the mighty US government without fear. He was arrested, locked up, beaten, but he never quit. He was eventually assassinated – the only way the government could silence him. Nelson Mandela was another political leader who served 27 years in prison only to be released and became South Africa’s president. These people never quit, and neither am I.
People kept asking me why I returned to doing the same thing I got punished for, but my only answer is – being a political activist is a lifetime thing and the only way to silence those of us in this profession is to KILL us. When my uncle died in prison under highly suspicious circumstances, I realized that I was in a whole world of danger. I served two prison terms and I knew I would not stop fighting for my rights, but I also knew then that DEATH was just around the corner. Being release from prison does not guarantee safety. The reality for a political prisoner like me, especially the leaders, is that they remain as prisoners in the sense that they are closely monitored, and can and will be arrested again for any reason the Indonesian military can find. I felt that I was in the cross-hairs of the Indonesian government everywhere I went. I knew that my next arrested would be my last. I had thought about escape, but then the feeling got stronger and stronger. I wanted to escape in a way that brings attention to the brutality in West Papua, and so Australia was the destination I had in mind.
I picked Merauke city to escape to Australia. This is important to because the place is filled with military and police posts and we had to be very careful about our plan; where to stay and when to leave the city. Before I made the final decision to depart for Merauke – thousands of miles away, my supporters and I went on a week retreat to Yapen Island to fast and pray for our journey. I wanted a quiet time to contemplate and pray and ask God if it was a good idea. For the activists who wanted to come with me, it was their opportunity to make their final decision whether it worth the risk. I wanted to give them the chance to pull out of the plan if they think didn't want to take the risk. After the second week, I consulted my fellow West Papuans and they found out that their feelings had not changed. They wanted to go with me, so we decided to execute this plan. I had to attempt what was never been attempted before - escape to Australia on a homemade boat. I knew that being alive in Australia would be much more than being dead in West Papua.
We executed our plan in early January 2006. Based on our plan, the majority of our activists - adults and children - left on a boat for Sorong city (the second largest city in West Papua) from the city of Serui. In Sorong, we would meet then part ways for the final leg of our journey, Merauke city. The parents would bring the kids and travel ahead of us to Merauke while dad and I and a few more activists would bring the boat down to Merauke city. It is easy talking about it, but this is a journey that took us weeks. My parents and other crew-members and I brought the canoe to Sorong via Manokwari. It took us about a week to get to Sorong. From Sorong, we met up with a couple of activists and then united with the rest of our group. After few days, my mother took the rest of the activists down to Merauke on a ship, while dad and I set out for Fakfak, Timika, Agats, and then Merauke on our homemade boat.

Mapoon - Australia
In Merauke, we stayed a little longer than we planned but a visit by the police to where stayed hastened our escape. My father had given the police his identification cards and other documents and so there was no turning back. We had to leave that night – midnight. The parents of those who were with us flew in days earlier from Jayapura to bid farewell to their children. There was no turn back. It was NOW or NEVER!
In the middle of the night, we hugged our parents and set sail for Australia. Before the Indonesian government found out, in the morning, our real identity, my parents would be on the plane to Jayapura and we were in the middle of the ocean surrounded by nothing but open sea trying to reach Australia.
I took 42 fellow West Papuans and escaped to Australia. My estimation was off and we found ourselves in the middle of nowhere with nothing to eat or drink. I estimated that a boat trip to Australia would take us 16 hours or so, but it took us 4 nights and 3 days. Our food and water ran out on the second day and we were in deep trouble. Rainwater, however, kept us alive. Soon, we came upon a place I thought was an uncle;  a landscape totally different what we have back home. For a while, we thought we were in Papua New Guinea, or worst - Indonesia. We sailed parallel to the shoreline until we came across a huge signboard by the beach. Seven young men from our canoe hit the water and swam ashore to see what was on the signboard. We had no idea that we were in ‘Crocodile land’. On the shore, we could see their reaction – it was priceless.
We had arrived in Australia. We pulled the canoe up to the beach and then walked a mile till we came to a place where we made fire, sung West Papuan songs and thank God for keeping us alive. Soon, the Australian Immigration reached our location. We were now in the arms of the Australian government.

For Herman, the choice to use the traditional outrigger canoe as his vessel to reach Australia was not based on a spontaneous moment of fear to escape, but rather on a strategic desire to broadcast West Papuan messages to the international community. The first message, meant exclusively for Herman, was a plea to Australia for protection and long-term security within their national boundaries. However, the salient message based within the larger political international community was in the form a metaphorical declaration of West Papuans readiness for self-determination. The outrigger canoe Herman chose for his journey was similar to the canoes used in the past to navigate through the Melanesian archipelago but it also was a metaphor for the WPNA. As Herman explains in his briefing paper delivered at the Comprehending West Papua, conference organized by the West Papua Project of the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at Sydney University in February 2011,
“The Traditional canoe is used as a metaphor of the WPNA. The struggle of the ancestors is passed on to the next generation through knowledge, loyalty, and perseverance. The WPNA is like a canoe carrying different tribes united by nationalism to be one people and one nation.”

Torres Times photographer Damien Baker captured their landing on an isolated inlet at Mapoon in far-north Queensland, and the remarkable
odyssey sparked media reports around the world.

Senior High School picture, 

Dr. Thom Wainggai, leader of the Nonviolent Movement in West Papua in the 1980s. He was murdered in prison. 
Nonviolent Movement
Photo: Damien Baker, 17 January 2006

West Papua: A Journey to Freedom

While in Australia, I met Erin Morris - a Film Maker - and her team and we began working on my first documentary: "West Papua - A Journey to Freedom". The shot this documentary in Australia and Wewak - Sepik province, Papua New Guinea. The location is ideal because it is closer to the Indonesia/PNG border so the activists were able to come to PNG and meet us there. My father, whom I hadn't seen in four years, also came. We did some workshop and got to hear their story about the struggles back in our homeland. You can check our the block and watch the documentary . The documentary is also available in our TV page.