The West Papua National Liberation Army, armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), known by the acronym TPNPB, released a video on February 15, showing hostage, Captain Philip Mehrtens — a New Zealander and Susi Air pilot — saying in a calm, but trembling voice: “I have been instructed to read this statement. No foreign pilots are permitted to work and fly in Papua, until Papua is independent. OPM requests the United Nations to mediate between Papua and Indonesia to work towards Papuan independence. OPM will release me after Papua is independent.”
After reading the statement, Philip thanked his family for “all your love and support”. He asked for his salary to be paid directly to his wife Maria so that there is money for food and bills. “It seems that this could go on for a long time,” he told them.
“I am being taken care of as well as can be expected given the situation. They always give me enough food and water; they provided some warm clothes for me, and any medicine as required due to my lack of conditioning for the long walks we take.
“The rest of my New Zealand families, I love you very much too, please try not worry too much about me, please also be patient and strong. I hope we all can be together very soon...”
The tragedy began on February 7, when Egianus Kogoya and his TPNPB attacked and destroyed a small plane owned by Indonesian airline, Susi Air, and kidnapped Mehrtens, in Paro village, Nduga Regency in Papua’s highlands.
This incident opened the doors on an unending war whose roots can be traced to international mismanagement by the Dutch, the UN, the United States and Indonesia in the 1960s.
Some have condemned the hostage taking as terrorism, while others see it as a strategy by OPM fighters to further their liberation cause. Indonesian mainstream media portrays the fighters as an armed criminal group, while others are indecisive or sympathetic.
The Daily Mail (DM) Australia illustrated this conflicting view with its February 16 headline, “Revealed: Heavily armed kidnapper pictured with New Zealand pilot is a 'psychopath' terrorist whose rebel group carried out horrifying massacre of 31 in lawless region of West Papua”.
DM omits the identity of many “sociopath” terrorists within the UN, along with the treacherous Dutch, US and other forces who created this lawless region that led to the murder of more than 500,000 Papuans and those 31.
International media (Aljazeera, BBC, ABC, CNN, Reuters, Guardian, Washington Post and others) chose to use the rebel group's name, the West Papua National Liberation Army of the Free West Papua Movement (TPNPB) as preferred by most Papuans standing for independence.
Historically, West Papua has been dissected, renamed and redefined by foreign powers for all kinds of purposes by making it simply an outpost of foreign imperialism on the periphery, where plentiful resources are exploited and scrounged. Papuans are being mutilated at all levels due to this. Jakarta has consistently branded Papuans who oppose its rule as terrorists and criminals to justify wars since the 1960s.
For more than a month since the kidnapping, Jakarta has refused to listen to OPM's demands and has also refused to seek international assistance for Mehrtens’ release, as per the OPM's conditions.
Everyone involved in this ordeal has high demands, positions and interests. The kidnapped pilot's safe return to his family and friends is of the utmost importance. For Egianus and his OPM army, it is the independence of Papua. For Jakarta, it is territorial integrity. The concern of the international community and UN may be for world peace and security. For ordinary Papuans and Indonesians living in West Papua, it is the impact of these conflicts.
Since the kidnapping, there have been many tragedies, displacements, shootings, killings and beheadings in the highlands of Papua.
Benny Wenda, leader of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP), reports that members of the Indonesian military murdered and mutilated a 35-year-old woman in Puncak Regency. Villagers' homes and churches were also emptied, as thousands of soldiers were deployed there. Tarina Murib’s naked body was found by residents on March 4. Her head was missing. During the military raid on the village, several civilians were shot, including a one-year-old baby and his mother.
This incident occurred in the aftermath of the massacre of 10 Indigenous Papuan civilians in Wamena by Indonesian security forces and police on February 23. In response, Papuans in Wamena burned Indonesian-owned shops, forcing their owners to flee. A student from Indonesia, Viktor Hadi Sampa, was shot and killed on March 8 in Dekai District, Yahukimo Regency, Papua.
Families of the victims hope the government will immediately resolve the conflict in Papua to prevent similar incidents from occurring in the future. The Indonesian government accused Kogoya of ordering his troops to murder Viktor. Verifying these killings independently is, however, almost impossible, since all parties involved are engaged in a deadly game of blame and counter-blame, in an environment where foreign journalists are prohibited from impartial reporting.
To help prevent further bloodshed, Papuan religious leaders, including Wenda, have sought to secure Mehrtens’ release. So far, the TPNPB has refused to negotiate with Indonesian or Papuan negotiators and has threatened to shoot them if they enter their territory.
In their recent video, there were three key points: foreign pilots are not allowed to work and fly in Papua until Papua is free; UN mediation between Papua and Indonesia is requested for West Papua's independence; and the TPNPB will release Mehrtens once Papua is free.
Mehrtens also warns that the crisis may last for some time.
If a hostage is taken in exchange for food, drinks or money, negotiations are easier, such as in the recent hostage crisis in Papua New Guinea. However, West Papua's hostage situation is difficult to resolve, since it has to do with ideology and not food or drink, as Kogoya explained in The Diplomat.
Jakarta is unlikely to even consider OPM’s demands, given their situation. Losing West Papua would be like losing Indonesia itself.
Papuans’ existence under Indonesian rule has a bleak future, due to high levels of conflict and violence, mass migration, high maternal and child mortality rates due to poor health services, threats of deforestation caused by investment and exploitation of natural resources, a lack of political participation and poor governance.
A recent study conducted by the ULMWP’s, Markus Haluk, found that Indigenous Papuans make up a very small minority (0.6%) of Indonesia’s 275.36 million population. Voter data calculations in the 2014 general election show Indigenous Papuans numbered 1.6 million people, out of Papua Province's 4.3 million and West Papua's 1.13 million combined (or 29%).
Given this situation, the future of the Papuan people under Indonesian settler colonial rule, if not resolved soon, will be the same as that of the original Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, and Canadians, whose land was completely expropriated by foreign settlers.
At the outset, Jakarta's controversial policies, including the 2001 Special Autonomy Law, seemed promising for Papuans. But Papuans have consistently opposed them for years because they are empty promises and only fill coffins.
Despite Papua’s state of affairs, Jakarta continues to beat the drum of development and prosperity, while sending thousands of troops to hunt rebels in this frontier war.
Papuans view Indonesia as an illegal foreign colonial occupier, while Indonesians see themselves as legitimate rulers. This contested terrain of justice, legitimacy, right and wrong has yielded endless tragedies that, if continued, will see Papuans eliminated from their own land.
Given this, who will be the negotiators for Mehrtens’ release? OPM has rejected any attempt by Indonesians or Papuans to force his release without UN or international mediation. The New Zealand government has offered to help, but Jakarta has rejected this offer. Army Commander, Yudo Margono also rejected an offer of help from New Zealand, stating he is still able to free Mehrtens.
As Jakarta deems this an internal matter, if the offer is accepted, it may be perceived as showing incompetence and weakness. Further, seeking international assistance to deal with West Papua's issues, particularly dealing with a group Jakarta deems criminal or terrorist, such as OPM, will undermine Jakarta’s 60-year strategy to prevent Papua from becoming an unresolved international issue.
The TPNPB is urging Australia and New Zealand to sever military ties with Indonesia. It will not remain silent as Indonesians threaten to eradicate the Papuans, and while the UN, US, the Netherlands and other countries involved in this tragedy stand by silently.
When asked, “Why take the path of taking a hostage?” TPNPB spokesperson Sebby Sambon replied: “The UN failed to implement the rights of Papuans for self-determination. The UN was involved and failed. They handed over the Papuans to Indonesia like animals. Because of this, Indonesia has killed us for 60 years; killing more than a million people.”
Reuters describes this emerging consciousness among OPM fighters by quoting Deka Anwar, founder of the Jakarta-based think tank the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict: “What we are seeing is younger, new leadership among local rebel groups that is more aggressive and not necessarily strategic in the long term.”
Anwar alluded to the lack of a long-term strategy, yet nothing Jakarta has proposed in the past has worked in resolving this conflict, and nothing else will until this root cause is addressed, because Papuan nationalism is fuelled by historical injustice, as Sambon states.
In his seminal paper, “Self-Determination Abandoned: The road to the New York Agreement on West New Guinea (Papua),” David Webster, concluded: “Any prospect of lasting peace will need to include an honest re-examination of the period in which self-determination was abandoned, the two years leading up to the 1962 New York Agreement.
“To be fully effective, reconsideration needs to take place not only in Jakarta and Papua, but also in Washington DC, where self-determination evaporated in the interests of US Cold War realpolitik.”
Will the UN intervene to solve the conflict by freeing the two hostages held captive in West Papua — one (Mehrtens) by OPM's Liberation Army, and the other (West Papua’s sovereignty) by the Indonesian government?