August 2007

The Nation Reviewed

The optimist

By Nicholas Brudenell
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

In March this year Herman Wainggai caused a problem at an ALP branch meeting in the outer-Melbourne suburb of Eltham. His speech on West Papua was so extraordinary in what it revealed that those present were not sure how to react. Some prepared to clap; others, seemingly entranced, could only stare. Finally, after an uncomfortable silence, an elderly man found the courage to raise a hand. His question spurred others to follow suit, and for the next hour Wainggai was treated like a minor deity.

Last year Wainggai and 42 other West Papuans caused the Coalition a much bigger problem. On 13 January the group sailed from Merauke in a flimsy outrigger canoe, landing on the Cape York Peninsula four days later. With no satellite instruments, relying on just "the stars and sun" to navigate, they weren't sure they had reached their intended destination. "We could have been in Indonesia or Papua New Guinea," Wainggai says. "But then we saw a sign on the road with a kangaroo - and we were very happy." For some time, though, nothing actually happened; they may as well have landed on Pluto. Eventually, after 14 hours, immigration officials showed up with food, first aid and questions. Still not believing his luck, Wainggai calmly requested asylum for the entire group.

Two months later, 42 of the 43 Papuans were granted temporary protection visas, allowing them to travel from detention on Christmas Island to freedom in Melbourne. Indonesia's response was dramatic. Newspapers were packed with anti-Australian invective; protesters took to the streets of Jakarta. President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono called the decision "inappropriate and unrealistic", and called his ambassador home from Canberra. Herman Wainggai, small and mild-mannered, had caused an international incident.

Since then, aided by a mobile phone and an email account, Wainggai has, in his idiosyncratic way, charmed many Australians. "He has travelled to Adelaide, Canberra and Sydney. He has spoken at the Australian branch of the International Commission of Jurists; he has addressed church groups, politicians such as Kevin Rudd, and various meetings arranged by the West Papua Association," says Warren Thomas, the ALP member who organised Wainggai's Eltham visit.

Then there was the time Wainggai took on the Rio Tinto board and its chairman, Paul Skinner, at the company's annual general meeting in May last year. The resource giant has a 40% stake in the controversial Grasberg copper mine in West Papua. In response to Wainggai's claim - "You cannot separate what the mine is doing from the political situation in Papua; it's directly linked to the human-rights problem" - Skinner thanked him for his "passionate and sincere words".

"As the self-appointed leader of the group that landed in Queensland, Herman has taken on a pastoral role," Warren Thomas says. "While he did not know all in the group when they jumped on the boat, I think he has a real concern for their welfare. Apart from being a law student, he was also a youth minister in his church back home, so he is active in leading their worship sessions."

When I meet him, Herman Wainggai, 33, is sitting quietly at the dining-room table of a shelter house in Melbourne's east. He seems a little apprehensive, even distrustful. "My English is not very good," he says, his brow furrowed. He's also hard to organise for an interview, agreeing to email with details but never doing so and changing arrangements as if they had never been made. Without the intervention of his Australian carers, this meeting might not be taking place.

"I saw my friends shot in front of me," he says slowly. "That was when we organised a student protest against special autonomy in 2001." Then it starts: a steady flow of anecdotes, each one detailing a human-rights abuse in the Indonesian province. Despite his clumsy English, Wainggai's machine-like memory and precise explanations give him credibility. "They arrested me and put gun behind me and forced me to the police station. They locked me up in interview room and put a gun in front of my eyes," he says. "Three hours later they came to interview me and put me in a cell where I had to sleep on a floor that was covered in dried blood. That blood was my brother's blood - he was arrested a week earlier. They [the Indonesian Army] hate them [student activists] and they killed one of them on the same spot."

Despite being sentenced to two years' jail for his role in the protest, Herman Wainggai could consider himself lucky. Various West Papuan independence leaders, such as Theys Eluay in 2001, have allegedly been murdered for their resistance to Indonesian rule. Many others just disappear. But if Wainggai was jailed to stop his campaigning, the punishment didn't exactly work. "After I was released in 2004, I and other friends organised more protests," he says, gazing fixedly.

Wainggai's next move was dangerous. "We organised a protest for the third time, in December 2005. They had already made an announcement to the Papuan people not to protest. But this time we organise a peaceful protest - only raising our flag. Just raising the Morning Star," he explains. "They tried arresting us with a gun, so I could not stay." That operation by the Indonesian military, to round up demonstrators in front of the Cendrawasih University, resulted in "many people escaping into Papua New Guinea" and "hundreds of others going into hiding in the   jungle". For Herman Wainggai, and for other student protesters and their families, it triggered the journey to Australia.

Flying the Morning Star flag has been banned in West Papua for a long time, and to do so is a highly provocative act. The Dutch granted independence to West Papua in 1961, arguing that the territory should not be part of Indonesia because the people there were predominantly Melanesians of Christian faith. The Morning Star was proudly hoisted on 1 December of that year; 19 days later Indonesian paratroopers invaded. In 1963 the UN granted Indonesia authority to rule Papua, with one condition: that an ‘act of free choice' decide the issue of independence. In the plebiscite of 1969 just 1025 Papuans were given the vote, and many community leaders were intimidated or detained so that they could not influence the outcome. It has jokingly become known as the ‘act of no choice'.

"For me, the Indonesian government does not have a good heart. They don't want the West Papuan people; they just want our resources," Wainggai says. West Papua is indeed blessed, or cursed, with rich natural resources: like Papua New Guinea, its supplies of timber, gold and copper are among the most plentiful on Earth. At the centre of the furore is Freeport-McMoRan's Grasberg mine, the world's largest gold and copper mine. The American company is Indonesia's biggest corporate taxpayer, contributing 2% of the country's entire GDP. The reasons for its popularity in Jakarta are obvious, but the mine is so unpopular with West Papuans that its owners paid the Indonesian Army US$20 million for protection between 1998 and 2004.

Papuans argue that the Grasberg operation has polluted waterways with toxic tailings. They are also aggrieved with the distribution of its wealth. So much so that, according to Wainggai, "The West Papuan people want the mine closed ... because they have never received any of the profits." That resentment came to a head in February 2006, when 300 locals carrying machetes and bows and arrows blockaded a road leading to the mine, demanding a meeting with Freeport-McMoRan's major shareholders and the governor of the province. The protesters couldn't understand why they had been banned from scavenging for gold among waste rock discarded by the mine.

According to Amnesty International and Sydney University's Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, the tensions in West Papua have claimed around 100,000 lives since 1963. Some consider that figure to be a conservative estimate. Equally distressing are the accusations of human-rights abuses levelled at the Indonesian military: the burning of villages and churches, rape, extortion. As was the case in East Timor, there are rumours of militia networks operating to terrorise the local population. "You know the World Health Organisation?" Wainggai asks. "They recorded in 1969 that the population of West Papua was 800,000 and the population of Papua New Guinea was 700,000. This year the WHO claims West Papua has 1.3 million and Papua New Guinea has five million. So my question is: Where are the West Papuans going?"

As quickly as indigenous people leave West Papua, often fleeing across the border to PNG, they are replaced through government-sponsored "transmigration", which relocates native Javanese and Sumatrans to the province. "Every week, four big boats bring Indonesian people. Now the population [split] between Javanese and indigenous peoples is about similar," Wainggai says. If these arrivals continue at the present rate, the native Melanesians will soon be a minority ethnic group on their own soil.

Here, both the Coalition and the Labor Party refuse to support Wainggai's call for Papuan independence, perhaps scared of another Indonesian backlash. For Indonesian nationalists, further splintering their ethnically diverse nation will only encourage other groups to follow suit, creating more civil conflicts - and, as John Howard pointed out in an interview with Alan Jones in April last year, "If you really want a problem on your doorstep, have a fragmenting Indonesia. It's really in Australia's interest they stay strong, unified and united."

Herman Wainggai, lunching on minestrone and buttered bread provided by his carers, cannot accept this. "West Papua needs a third party to intervene. On many occasions we have asked for dialogue with Jakarta, but they don't want it," he insists, smiling. "Like East Timor - you helped East Timor." Ever the optimist, Wainggai believes fervently that despite the present political climate, Australians will one day support his cause.

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