Herman Wainggai and the struggle of displaced people

Visiting scholar gives speech on SEED Displacement Day



One of the most contentious issues of today’s politics is refugees — particularly Syrian refugees, whose country’s civil war has created one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. They are forced to flee their war-torn country in hopes of finding a better life for themselves and especially their children.


The United States, along with the rest of the Western world, has its eyes on Syrian refugees. However, many Americans do not know about the struggles of West Papuans living in the shadows of Indonesian colonization.


On a Thursday afternoon, Students Engaged in Ending Displacement hosted SEED Displacement Day at Mason. Herman Wainggai, a visiting scholar from the School of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, spoke about his plight as a West Papuan refugee. He is a diplomat and a leader in West Papua’s struggle for self determination. Wainggai has devoted more than 20 years of his life to nonviolence activism to free West Papuans from Indonesian occupation.


Wainggai is an internationally-recognized human rights leader who represents indigenous West Papuans at the United Nations under his organization, West Papuan National Authority. He has expertise in the theory and practice of nonviolent conflict transformation, has an extensive and international media presence and is a frequent keynote speaker.


The history of West Papua’s independence is complex and turbulent. It was originally populated by an indigenous group of people called the Melanesians. By 1898, West Papua and Indonesia were formally colonized by the Netherlands. When the country of Indonesia became an independent nation in 1949, West Papua did not join. The Dutch government recognized that West Papua is culturally very different from Indonesia and ultimately prepared West Papua for its own independence. In 1961, West Papuans declared their independence and raised their new flag.


However, the dream came to an end in just a few short months. The Indonesian government wanted all of the former Dutch colonies in the Asia-Pacific region, and their military soon invaded West Papua. Over the next few decades and up until present day, conflict broke out between the Netherlands, Indonesia and the indigenous population of West Papua over control of the territory.


The Indonesian military has conducted a genocide in an attempt to control West Papuans and their land. This has started the West Papuan resistance movement and an armed guerrilla group called the Free Papua Movement to resist the colonization of West Papua. They have carried out a number of attacks on the Indonesian military — only using their bows and arrows — for taking their land and resources.

Wainggai is a targeted political activist because he took on the Indonesian government for West Papuan rights and freedom. He has been targeted and incarcerated numerous times because of his outspokenness on West Papuan sovereignty. Ultimately, he was one of 43 asylum seekers who fled to Australia to escape persecution.


In Australia, Wainggai and his group can talk freely with the media about what the Indonesian military has been doing to them — oppressing and killing them.


On SEED Displacement Day, Wainggai gave a speech to a group of students discussing his experience as a human rights leader: “The most important thing for us West Papuans is that we would like to see a change in West Papua. The Indonesian government needs to recognize West Papua to live in their own country freely without any discrimination or violation of human rights.”


The system that the Indonesian government has created gives very limited rights for West Papuans.


“There are 10,000 West Papuans who have been displaced and relocated to other countries ever since the Indonesian occupation,” Wainggai said.


In the last 50 years, people have been living in exile like Wainggai. In total, there are almost 100,000 West Papuan people living as refugees.


Al Fuertes, faculty advisor for Students Engaged in Ending Displacement and professor in the school of Conflict Analysis and Resolution, set up a makeshift home that resembles what refugees and people who have been displaced from their land live in.


Fuertes said, “Displacement is basically being forcibly uprooted against their will… [T]hese people fled their home countries against their will. You can just imagine the psycho-social implications of being displaced. Especially for indigenous communities where their sense of identity is tied up to their land.”


Fuertes spoke with passion and knowledge because his work revolves around being a field practitioner, and he specializes in psycho-social trauma healing.


“There is a difference between being forcibly displaced and being a migrant. Migration is people leaving their home in search for a better life, but not necessarily for the reason that their safety and security are threatened. Displaced populations are from war zones or affected communities from areas that have been terribly devastated by natural disasters,” Fuertes said.


However, there is a conflict over the actual definition of migrant and displaced population. Fuertes did say that migrants flee home for economic reasons, but exemplifies how there is an argument that being in poverty is a threat to someone’s safety and security. Displaced populations — who are often referred to as refugees — are people whose communities have become war zones, who have had their safety threatened or who are from homes that have been destroyed by natural disasters.


Ultimately, he said that the bottom line is that they are all affected by these traumatic events, they all fled forcibly from their home community. “Internally displaced population is a whole other thing. They are people who, technically, have not decided to cross the borders to be relocated to a nearby country. Many of them were displaced from their home villages but still remain on the same country,” Fuertes said.


There are many extreme trials that refugees go through to relocate to another country. They are not automatically given refugee status; there is a rigorous application process.


“There is a lot that refugees or displaced people go through when they relocate to a country they do not know about. There is social, cultural, economic and political implications. There are a lot of prejudices and biases towards them by mainstream media. They are being perceived in this [unjust] manner and it also follows how they are being treated. Many of them are deprived of their basic necessities,” Fuertes said.


Wainggai’s presence has enriched people’s understanding and provided a human face to the whole issue of displacement, particularly refugees or political asylum seekers. “His presence enabled my students to appreciate and to take seriously the problem of displacement even more. He has provided a voice for the millions of displaced populations,” Fuertes said.