WEST PAPUA - Remembering Dr. Thom Wainggai on the day he left us – March 12
28 years ago, I stood at the Mandala stadium in Jayapura in awe as if I was in a scene of a violent war movie. It was not a soccer event, rather it was the day I witnessed the beginning of the end of one of my heroes – a man revered by many, Dr. Thom Wainggai (known to many as Dr. Thom). That day, Dr. Thom and his wife, alongside 70 tribal leaders raised the West Melanesian flag (West Papua) and were brutally arrested by Indonesian police officers and soldiers. It was the last time he made a bold stand against Indonesian imperialism. I won’t forget that day.
I grew up in West Papua in a land occupied by a strange by a different ethnic group – Indonesians. We were taught to read and write in the Indonesian language, speak Indonesian (Javanese) in public and in our communities. We learned to sing the Indonesian national anthem, learned Indonesian poetry, history, political and legal systems. We eat, drink, go to school, and learn to be faithful Indonesian citizens. We grew up believing and seeing ourselves as Indonesians – black Indonesians. Speaking native language at home was also discouraged; most people chose to communicate in secret, especially in front of Indonesian police.
Not until Dr. Thom – my father’s elder brother – returned from the United States that a serious movement to revive West Papuan cultural identities began to take form. West Papuans like me realized for the first time that we were being occupied and that West Papua is not part of Asia. We West Papuans are Melanesians – part of the Melanesian family in Oceania (Pacific) illegally occupied by Indonesia since 1960s. We began to see ourselves as true Melanesians. People across West Papua began to take their Melanesian identity seriously, reading West Papuan poetry, writing about West Papua as part of the Melanesian family, and studying West Papuan history.
He mourned the loss of West Papuan culture and did his best, as an educator, to revive it. He was the first West Papuan to get an advanced education from outside of West Papua. He just returned from the US after completing his Masters Degree at the University of New York at Albany and his Doctorate degree from Florida State University, Florida. What he saw after many years living abroad, broke his heart. After two decades of occupation, West Papuan cultural identity; the various elements that make up the identity of the West Papuan people were slipping away from the people through years of indoctrination and government aggressive anti-West Papuan cultures policies. The things that were extremely important to the West Papuans – such as language, history, social practices, and their religion – Christianity, were either absorbed by the dominant Indonesian culture, outlawed or discouraged by the Indonesian government.
In 1988, he and other tribal leaders began an aggressive move to restore West Papuan pride. They attempted to tilt West Papua toward its Pacific roots. They used the “Bird of Paradise” to describe West Papuan women – the women of Western Melanesia, and West Papuan men as the ‘Crown pigeon’ of West Melanesia. They also created a new flag bearing three unique colors signifying the struggles of our people. The black color represents our race – Melanesian race (dark skin). They also used color Red to represent the bravery of West Papuan warriors and the blood of their fallen warriors that spilled on our lands, and the Green represents the rich natural resources of West Papua. He reminded West Papuan people that they are indeed Melanesians, not Asians. He argued that West Papuan people are a part of the Melanesian family and that Indonesia had illegally acquired West Papua and forced them to adopt a new identity that contradicted everything their ancestors passed down to them. Dr. Thom also used the scripture “The Lord is my Shepherd” as the national motto of West Papua.
On December 14, 1988, my uncle Dr. Thom reviewed the Rome Agreement and came to the conclusion that under the agreement, which Indonesia signed, Indonesia was only allowed to administer West Papua for twenty-five years. After this period, Dr. Thom discovered that Indonesia was to return West Papua to the United Nations decolonization agenda. This, Dr. he argued, was the end of Indonesia occupation of West Papua and that the thorough execution of the Rome Agreement would lead to the ultimate freedom of West Papuan people. He and 70 tribal leaders met and agreed to declare West Papua – by virtue of the Rome Agreement – independent from Indonesia. Doing so, he attempted to force the International community, particularly the United Nations, to implement the agreement and to place West Papua back on the agenda of the 1988 UN agenda to pave the way to self-determination.
What was meant to be a simple legal challenge to the legality and credibility of Indonesian occupation of West Papua, turned out to be a total nightmare. On December 14, 1988, Dr. Thom notified the Indonesian government, police, and military that he and other leaders planned to meet at Mandala stadium to raise the West Papuan flag and to declare the independence of West Papua and to demand the UN resumes control of West Papua until an arrangement was made to accommodate West Papuan self-determination. This act of good faith brought the Indonesian military and police to the stadium to encounter Dr. Thom and his men. These soldiers were armed to the teeth with eyes in the sky, soldiers in every street, and Warship at the Wharf within striking distance of the stadium. They were extremely scary!
I watched hopelessly as they stripped our elders down to their underwear and forced them not to move. The commanding officer walked up to my uncle and manhandled him – arrested him as if he was a wanted warlord or drug-dealer being nabbed from the streets. His wife, whose only crime was sewing the West Melanesian flag, was also roughed up and both hauled away from my sight by armed soldiers and police. That day, watching my uncle being humiliated in front of his people permanently scarred my memory. I could never get it off my mind. It was like a war zone.
At home, Indonesian military had entered our house without a warrant and sought through our properties. They ordered every fisherman to stay home and removed their ‘motor engines’ to avoid them sneaking into Papua New Guinea. The Indonesian authority feared that the documents Dr. Thom prepared could be smuggled to Papua New Guinea to a Dr. Thom’s personal friend – a Catholic bishop – who was stationed at Vanimo; a village near the border.
The two weeks Dr. Thom gave the international community to recognize Indonesia’s independence and for the UN to put the West Papua agenda back on the UN decolonization agenda, was a total nightmare. The Indonesian government ordered a total shutdown of electricity and all forms of communication. Fully armed soldiers and police officers filled every street of West Papua – the green colors and brown uniforms filled our streets. It was like a war zone. The decision to ban West Papuan fishermen from going out to sea also affected us tremendously. As a fisherman family, fishing was our only source of income; we didn’t have money to buy food. But we understood the policy of the Suharto regime. It was a dictatorship and would do whatever it takes to destroy West Papua.
We spent days looking for my uncle. I appeared that they didn’t put him in a traditional police prison, they hid him in a military base, known as Waena military base. Every time we visited him, guards would humiliate us. During our first visit, guards asked my dad and me to strip down to our shorts as they use Bayonets to check Dr. Thom’s food that we brought. Another time, my aunt and I were thrown out of the base because my aunt spoke to Dr. Thom in our native language – Ambai language – instead of the Indonesian language. I informed the guards that my aunt didn’t speak Indonesian language but they gave us no chance. My uncle was soon taken away from Jayapura, and that was that last time I saw him.
We were absolutely powerless to get Dr. Thom back to us; it seemed as if the world had completely lost its sense of justice and moral compass. These things affected me tremendously, but they also emboldened my commitment to the ‘Nonviolent movement’ Dr. Thom left behind. For more than twenty years, I dedicated myself to my uncle’s struggle – his ‘Nonviolent movement’ and his promotion of Melanesianism in a land gripped with foreign occupation and severe indoctrination.
Today, I’m sitting in my room just outside of Washington, D.C. recalling my uncle’s experience and my own experience with so much pain, but I am thankful I’m still alive and well to continue this struggle.
Freedom is just around the corner.
To be continued…