Politics holds Papua hostage

Unless this decades-long approach changes, conflict will continue to plague Papua and other hostage takings will recur and the cycle of violence will persist.


In this undated photo sent by a Papuan separatist group, a man identified as New Zealand national Phillip Merthens stands in a forest surrounded by a group of people armed with rifles, spears and bows and arrows. (Courtesy of TPNPB/-)

February 16, 2023

JAKARTA – Alas Papua has yet again come under international scrutiny amid the latest chapter in the violence that the country’s easternmost territory has grappled with for decades. This time around the West Papua National Liberation Army (TNPB), an armed wing of the Free Papua Organization (OPM) rebel group, has taken hostage a pilot working for Susi Air, Phillip Mark Mehrtens of New Zealand, after burning his aircraft in Nduga regency last week.

As security forces deploy to track down the armed group, the TNPB released on Tuesday photos and video, which appeared to show that the foreign pilot was alive and well.

“He is safe with our boys in the field, and everything is okay. He’s staying with our friends and family at the […] headquarters. He has good skills, and we will look after him and he will train our soldiers how to fly an aircraft,” a spokesman for the group, Sebby Sambom, told RNZ Pacific.

At one point in the video sent to the media, including The Jakarta Post, the pilot said the rebel group would keep him in captivity for the rest of his life unless Indonesian Military (TNI) personnel are withdrawn from Papua.

Coordinating Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud MD said the government was seeking every path to release Mehrtens. Mahfud asserted that the government would take a persuasive approach in dealing with the abductors, but would remain open to “other options”.

A team comprising the Nduga regent and several members of the local legislative council have been dispatched to the outlying district of Paro to negotiate with the group for the pilot’s release, with the police expecting the mission to be accomplished sooner rather than later.

But looking back at the way the government has dealt with the OPM, or popular dissent in general in Papua, there are reasons for us to worry about the endgame of this hostage taking.

In 1996 the government entrusted the Army’s Special Forces (Kopassus), led by their commander at the time Brig. Gen. Prabowo Subianto, to launch a military operation to release 11 researchers, including four Britons and two Dutch, in Mapenduma district in the Jayawijaya highlands, now part of Nduga. Two of the hostages were killed in the operation, which marked a bloody end to a 130-day drama.

To quell the low-intensity rebellion in Papua the government, except under then-president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid who briefly served in 1999-2001, has consistently maintained a security approach, which is marked by the deployment of military and police.

With two military commands (Kodam) and an Army Strategic Reserves Command (Kostrad) brigade, plus military taskforces assigned along the borders with Papua New Guinea and a number of vital state facilities, such as a gold mine and gas refinery, the military deployment in Papua far exceeds that in other provinces. At the same time, the government has continued to force its will on the Papuans, as most recently evident in the formation of new provinces and regencies there without proper and meaningful consultation with local people.

Unless this decades-long approach changes, conflict will continue to plague Papua and other hostage takings will recur and the cycle of violence will persist.

Last November, without much fanfare the government reached an agreement in Geneva with the rebel groups on a humanitarian pause in Papua. But the deal, which aims to temporarily stop hostilities and violence in Papua, has not worked, which rights groups have blamed on a lack of transparency and a failure to involve all stakeholders.

The negotiations to release the Susi Air pilot should serve as a precursor to another initiative toward a dialogue to end the ongoing violence in Papua and bring peace back to the land.

One of the conditions for such dialogue to take place must be the government’s willingness to curtail its ego and listen to the grievances of the local people. For a long time Jakarta has opted to make compromises with the local political elites, which has meant that Papua remains mired in poverty despite the billions of dollars in special autonomy funds transferred to the territory.

A genuine, dignified dialogue will free Papua from poverty and hence violence.

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