February 21, 2023
JAKARTA – The abduction of Susi Air pilot Phillip Mehrtens of New Zealand by the West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), in Paro district in the Papua highland regency of Nduga has received wide attention from within and outside Indonesia.
As local media reported, the TPNPB stormed the small Susi Air plane after it landed, set it on fire and took the pilot hostage. The pilot was then taken to the insurgent group’s stronghold area to be used as “political leverage”. The central government responded by deploying a search and rescue team that so far has found difficulties in locating the pilot.
The joint security task force has evacuated 15 workers building a nearby health center whom the insurgent group intimidated and asked to leave Paro. Indigenous Papuans who have witnessed the long-running battle between the armed group and the security forces had to flee their villages.
The New Zealand government has relied on its counterpart to find, evacuate and bring its citizen home. The local police have sent a team of local figures to negotiate with while preparing a “special operation” led by the Indonesian Military (TNI) to crush the armed group if negotiations fail.
Many political commentators and human rights defenders have highlighted concerns about the abduction, that it merely reflects a clumsy decision made by the insurgent group and that it could lead to the possibility of tighter control over Papuans and Papua. The kidnapping also proves the state’s approach remains ineffective in providing security to civilians in the remote territory.
What can we learn from the kidnapping?
First, the state has overlooked the escalation of violence in the Papua highlands, known as the stronghold of the OPM. The kidnapping is part of the TPNPB’s agenda, which has received a minimal response from the state to prevent such a thing from happening.
In November 2018, the armed group captured and killed 16 construction workers in Nduga’s Mbua district. In March 2021, the guerrilla fighters also kidnapped but later released a pilot in Puncak.
The TPNPB has consistently asked commercial flights to stop operating and non-Papuan civilians to leave conflict zones, such as in Yahukimo, Nduga, Puncak, Pagunungan Bintang, and Intan Jaya regencies. This demand has fallen on deaf ears since the government barely provides comprehensive security to civilians and commercial planes in the Papua highlands.
Second, reflecting on the armed attacks between the insurgent group and the security forces, we can assume the conflict has intensified. With over 200 armed clashes since 2019, the conflict has become more protracted, a term coined by Lebanese scholar Edward Azar in the 1970s. The state has failed to provide security in the area and has barely addressed the deep-seated grievances for over 50 years in Nduga and neighboring areas.
In contrast, pro-independence groups have acquired a more deadly capacity over the past five years. The TPNPB has obtained relatively sophisticated weapons from illegal trade with the military and police, confiscations and illicit supplies from Bougainville in Papua New Guinea, Thailand and the Philippines. The group has received increasing financial support, including from the government’s village funds through its sympathizers.
All of these factors have improved local armed groups’ capability to maintain their presence and launch deadly attacks amid tight security oversight.
Despite their more sophisticated weapons and well-trained personnel, the security forces have suffered more losses than the insurgent groups. This fact is reinforced by both parties’ resistance to initiating a peaceful negotiation. The intractability and longevity of the conflict merely reflect a deadlock in resolving the conflict.
Third, rather than the Papuans’ grievances, the kidnapping has drawn massive attention to the situation in Papua. The armed conflict has been the main feature in Nduga and other areas for the past six years, followed by the massive displacement of Papuans both within Papua and outside Papua, such as to neighboring PNG. Along with intensive communication with tribal and religious leaders, the state has to address the internally displaced people (IDPs) living in constant fear in Nduga and the surrounding areas where they still seek refuge.
The dire condition of Nduga IDPs has to be the priority of both the local administration and central government. Many IDPs barely have access to basic services, such as education, health and clean water. If the state can improve the conditions of the displaced in Nduga, it will be able to regain trust among the Nduga people and from the TPNPB to find a solution to rescue the hostage.
Fourth, TPNPB leader Egianus Kogeya is a “product” of transgenerational trauma that has existed since the 1990s. The abduction has not happened in a vacuum. Historical injustice experienced by indigenous Papuans has been a pretext for more resistance in the area. Egianus’ father, Silas Kogeya, was a local leader in Nduga, who in 1996 participated in the kidnapping of foreign and domestic researchers in Nduga’s Mapenduma district. A military operation was launched to free the hostages.
Born out of the conflict, Egi and many Papuan youths experience transgenerational trauma at the individual and communal levels. This unresolved trauma, reinforced by the availability of weapons, has been sufficient enough for them to launch armed campaigns since 2018 in Nduga. The group recruited its members mostly by capitalizing on the deep grievances of the Papuan youths.
Some children even took up arms against the security forces because of the hardship of living in uncertain conditions. In contrast to the massive deradicalization programs for terrorism, there are no specific policies to address transgenerational trauma among armed conflict-affected victims, particularly children, of the long-running conflict in Papua.
As a result, the state merely generates more resistance among Papuan youth who either take to the street for demonstrations or take arms to launch attacks against the security forces and civilians.
Fifth, the recent abduction also shows how business activities, chiefly commercial flights, operate in remote central highlands. Compared with well-constructed airports, remote airstrips are paramount in connecting and distributing logistics to Papuans living in scattered areas in the central highlands of Papua. Pioneer flights have been crucial to providing the only lifeline to Papuans and flying teachers, medical staff and religious figures in inland Papua.
In this regard, security is vital to guarantee the safety of air operations in the area. However, Air Force personnel usually only guard well-constructed airports. The kidnapping raises the alert to evaluate the safety of flight routes and operations in Indonesia’s easternmost area. Some flights have temporarily terminated operations, and the loss will be for Papuans and the state’s development agenda in the remote areas. Thus, it is urgent to address the situation, otherwise, more isolation will be the development feature in Papua.
The abduction of the pilot from New Zealand should prompt the state and relevant stakeholders to evaluate development and security policies in the Papua highlands and for Papuans living in the area. Commercial flights are only part of how the state policies affect livelihoods in Papua.
Papuans rely chiefly on commercial flights to support their lives, thus the release of the hostage is the most important task. However, the rescue operation should not create more problems in Papua.
The writer is a researcher at the Australian National University.