February 13, 2023
JAKARTA – Vice President Ma’ruf Amin has called for better safeguards for civilian flights into Papua after the recent abduction of a New Zealand pilot by rebel fighters, as a joint security team continues its search in the mountainous jungle region beset by conflict.
The torching of an airplane operated by frontier airline Susi Air and the abduction of its foreign pilot in Nduga regency earlier this week exposed yet another problem, the Vice President suggested on Friday, as he called for security to be tightened around air travel infrastructure in Papua.
“An aircraft that has landed can only be set on fire if there is not enough security. There should have been some security attendance,” Ma’ruf said during a visit to Central Lombok, West Nusa Tenggara, as quoted by state news agency Antara.
The commercial airplane had landed on an airstrip in Paro district, deep in Highland Papua province, on Tuesday with five local passengers and the pilot onboard, before armed rebels raided the airstrip, took hostages and torched the plane in a gesture of defiance against the government.
The West Papua Liberation Army, the military wing of the Free Papua Organization (OPM), claimed responsibility for the attack and demanded that the governments of Indonesia and New Zealand facilitate talks to liberate the region from what they consider an ongoing occupation.
A spokesperson for the rebel group claimed it had released the five Papuan passengers but had held onto the pilot, Captain Philip Merthens, as a bargaining chip.
Jakarta authorities say they believe the foreigner has escaped capture.
A team of Indonesian Military (TNI) and National Police personnel has since been dispatched to rescue the pilot.
Prosecution and prosperity
Ma’ruf demanded that the rebels be held accountable.
“So Highland Papua is still known for its security threats. This is why I request that these agents provocateurs be pursued in the name of law enforcement,” the Vice President added.
He also claimed that the government had been building prosperity in the region in efforts that had been backed by a variety of Papuan stakeholders, including local figureheads, missionaries and customary leaders.
“We will keep developing prosperity and will adjust things in tune with what the people of Papua want,” Ma’ruf said.
The country’s easternmost region, with abundant natural resources underneath its jungle canopy, has been plagued by severe underdevelopment and exploitation, which has galvanized a separatist movement that has simmered in the background for decades.
Jakarta has been criticized for employing a tough security approach in the region, though officials claim the focus has recently shifted to a shared prosperity approach.
Merthens’ abduction is the first since 1996 to involve a foreigner, and analysts have warned the state not to repeat the mistakes of the past, in which two Indonesian hostages lost their lives.
As the team continues its search for the pilot, security and military personnel have evacuated residents of Paro to the Nduga regency capital of Kenyam.
Some 25 people have been transported there on two Bell helicopters, according to a police statement.
Cenderawasih Military Command commander Maj. Gen. Muhammad Saleh Mustafa said the evacuation had been carried out for the safety of the residents.
Not a hostage?
Mustafa also claimed there was no hostage situation.
“We reiterate that there is no hostage situation. We are currently looking for the whereabouts of the Susi Air pilot,” the Army general said in a statement on Friday.
New Zealand is working closely with Indonesia to evacuate the pilot, officials have said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Teuku Faizasyah said on Friday that communication with Wellington over the pilot’s abduction was ongoing, although he declined to elaborate.
“What we can confirm is that this aspect of citizen protections is one that any country takes seriously,” he said at a press briefing in Jakarta.
Meanwhile, Papua Police spokesperson Sr. Comr. Ignatius Benny Adi Prabowo said authorities were still searching for the New Zealand national.
“We are currently still mapping [his whereabouts],” Benny told The Jakarta Post on Friday, claiming there was no definitive proof that Merthens was still with the rebels.
He also said authorities were seeking the assistance of local figureheads in Paro who might have ways of communicating with the armed group.
In Jakarta, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Dudung Abdurachman designated the incident a “terror act”.
Separately, rebel spokesman Sebby Sambom said the New Zealand pilot was in good condition and was still in the hands of the rebels.
He added that his release was something to be negotiated with New Zealand, not Indonesia.
“If [New Zealand] does not want to compromise, the hostage will remain with us until Papua is free,” Sebby told the Post on Friday. (tjs)