Papuan cat-and-mouse over NZ pilot taken captive by ‘freedom’ rebels

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New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens taken captive by Papuan rebels
New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens taken captive by Papuan rebels . . . a "Papua Merdeka" - Free Papua message. Image: TPNPB screenshot APR

BACKGROUNDER: By David Robie

Papuan independence rebels are playing a desperate game of cat and mouse with Indonesian authorities over their hostage taking last week with a New Zealand pilot caught in the middle.

Christchurch-raised Philip Mehrtens, 37, a pilot for the national feeder airline Susi Air owned by a former cabinet minister and with Jakarta government supply contracts, was seized by rebels last Tuesday, February 7, shortly after he had touched down at the remote Paro airstrip near Nduga in the Papuan highlands.

Five Indigenous Papuans on board the aircraft were set free and the plane was set on fire.

After initial reports saying the authorities were trying to pinpoint the actual place where the rebels are in hiding and that a rescue operation is under way, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) played a trump card today by releasing “proof of life” video footage and photos.

“Papua Merdeka!,” said Mehrtens in one of the obviously coached video messages. “The Papuan military have taken me captive in the fight for Papuan independence,” he added hesitantly while surrounded by a group of armed rebels.

Dressed in a denim jacket, he also wore a black tee-shirt displaying a clenched fist in the colours of the West Papuan Morning Star flag, banned under Indonesian law. The tee also sported the slogan “Papua Merdeka” (Papuan Freedom).

The rebels have gone to great pains to make it appear their captive is relaxed and in good health.

High stakes
The stakes are high with the Papuan rebels trying to attract world attention to their cause for independence, “forgotten” by the world for more than the past half century.

But analysts warn that there is a risk of a tragic outcome if a botched rescue takes place as happened the last time Indonesian security forces raided rebels of the Organisasi Papua Merdeka (OPM – Free Papua Movement) who had seized hostages at Mapenduma in 1996, also in the Papuan highlands.


A report of the “proof of life” messages from the TPNPB rebels by the ABC’s Jakarta correspondent Anne Barker.       Video: ABC Australia

Although in that operation on 15 May 1996 nine hostages were freed, two were killed by the captors while eight OPM guerrillas were killed and two captured.

Six days earlier another rescue bid had ended in disaster when an Indonesian military helicopter crashed killing all five soldiers on board.

he Susi Air plane seized by the Papuan rebels
The Susi Air plane seized by the Papuan pro-independence rebels at the remote Paro airstrip and then set ablaze. Image: TPNPB

Originally, on 8 January 1996, 29 members of a World Wildlife Fund research mission had been seized. However, the rebels promptly released 19 captives while holding 11 – four British, two Dutch and five Indonesians.

There were also international repercussions with the International Red Cross (ICRC) being accused of collaborating with the Indonesian military – later admitted by Jakarta after it was reported that they had used a white helicopter that had been involved in negotiations with soldiers on board.

White mercenaries were also accused of being part of the operation.

Rebel leader Kelly Kwalik had dropped a plan to release the remaining hostages, accusing the ICRC of not honouring their agreement. “We took the researchers hostage because we had no other way for our cause to be acknowledged,” he told the New Internationalist.

Human rights violations
The rescue raid mounted by Kopassus special forces – codenamed Operation Cenderawasih (Bird of Paradise) — was under the command of general Prabowo Subianto, former son-in-law of then President Suharto.

Prabowo was two years later dishonourably discharged from the military over allegations of human rights violations. Today he is a politician and Minister of Defence under President Joko Widodo.

The Papuan rebels are trying to reverse the narrative that is projected by Jakarta that the Melanesian provinces of Papua and West Papua (now increased to five) adjoining the independent country of Papua New Guinea are an integral part of Indonesia and those Indigenous people resisting are “terrorists”.

The rebels and also peaceful groups seeking self-determination argue that a 1969 referendum with 1025 handpicked voters supervised by the United Nations in the former Dutch colony voting “unanimously” for Indonesian rule in a so-called Act of Free Choice was a “sham”.

The lesson from this latest hostage-taking crisis, according to Australian academic Dr Camellia Webb-Gannon, who is author of Morning Star Rising: The Politics of Decolonisation in West Papua, is that there needs to be serious negotiations.

Echoing some of the demands of the rebels, she wrote in a backgrounder on the deeper issues of Indonesian colonialism that New Zealand, Australia – both accused of collaborating militarily with Jakarta — and other governments needed to seriously engage about human rights violations in Papua.

Webb-Gannon admitted it may not be enough to resolve the current crisis, “but it would be a long overdue and critical step in the right direction.”

Avoiding disproportionate response
As she stressed, negotiations for the release of Mehrtens must be handled carefully to “avoid further disproportionate responses” by the Indonesian military.

“The kidnapping is not justified, but neither is Indonesia’s violence against West Papuans — or the international community’s refusal to address the violence.”

There are other Papuan pro-independence players that are seeking a peaceful path to self-determination, such as the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP) that is seeking to become a full member of the Port Vila-based Melanesian Spearhead Group (MSG).

Exiled leader Benny Wenda issued a statement offering his “deepest sympathies” to the friends and family of hostage Mehrtens.

“At the same time, the ULMWP executive reiterates and reassures the New Zealand government and the world that we are [committed] to a peaceful, diplomatic approach,” he said in his statement condemning the Indonesian divide and rule policies.

“Our roadmap is very clear: we are pursuing the unified West Papuan goal of Merdeka – national liberation – peacefully, through diplomatic political mechanisms.

“We must not lose sight of the fact that Indonesia uses this kind of violence as part of a distinct strategy of occupation.

Stronger colonial grip
“Their aim is to intensify militarisation in West Papua as a way of strengthening their colonial grip on our land.”

Wenda highlighted how Indonesia’s Parliament had last year passed a law creating three new provinces in West Papua, as part of the renewal of the 2001 ‘Special Autonomy’ programme.

“West Papuans overwhelmingly reject ‘Special Autonomy’, more than 700,000 of us having signed a petition against it. Provincial division is a justification for increased militarisation in West Papua, pure and simple,” he said.

“By creating new administrative divisions, Indonesia justifies the establishment of new colonial infrastructure and new military posts.

“They do not want dialogue or peaceful protest — they want chaos and violence, for West Papua to remain a war zone.

“As our land is militarised and destroyed, our people are forcibly displaced.

“Depopulation is another key part of Indonesia’s colonial strategy: by removing West Papuans from our ancestral lands, they allow for massive exploitation of our natural resources.”

100,000 Papuans displaced
Wenda said that up to 100,000 West Papuans had been internally displaced since 2019, including close to half of Nduga’s entire population.

“They continue to live in the bush, deprived of education, food, and adequate medical facilities, unable to return to their homes.

“Indonesia labels us as terrorists while committing state terrorism in our lands.”
The ULMWP’s peaceful demands are:

  • The withdrawal of all Indonesian troops from West Papua;
  • Immediate access to West Papua for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights;
  • Cancellation of ‘Special Autonomy’, including the new provincial division; and
  • An immediate referendum on independence.

“The kidnap of a foreign pilot naturally brings West Papua to the attention of international media,” Wenda said. “But West Papuans are tortured and murdered daily by Indonesian forces, and international media are banned from seeing it.”

New Zealand diplomats meeting with Indonesian military officers at Timika
New Zealand diplomats meeting with Indonesian military officers at Timika in the Papuan highlands. Image: Jubi News

Meanwhile, Jubi News reports three New Zealand diplomats and two staff of the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs have travelled to Timika, the capital of Mimika Regency, in the new Central Papua province this week to check on progress with the rescue operation.

They met military officers, including the commander of Timika region, Lieutenant-General Nyoman Cantiasa, on Monday. He appealed for “international support” to discuss the crisis with the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Hopefully, a peaceful resolution can be found.

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