Open letter plea for NZ to back West Papua peaceful hostage plan

Nduga children living in refugee camps in the Papuan highlands
Nduga children living in refugee camps in Muliama District, Jayawijaya, as a result of armed conflict in the central highlands of Papua. Image: Yuliana Lantipo/Jubi

Asia Pacific Report

A New Zealand advocacy group has appealed to the government to heed the call of West Papuan church leaders for Indonesia to withdraw security forces and impose a “humanitarian pause” while negotiating for the release of captive pilot Philip Merhtens.

Mehrtens, a 37-year-old New Zealander working for the Indonesian local airline Susi Air, has been held hostage since February 7 when West Papuan National Liberation Army (TPNPB) rebels captured him and set his aircraft ablaze.

West Papua Action Aotearoa (WPAA) wrote an open letter at the weekend to Prime Minister Chris Hipkins and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta asking the government to support the churches’ appeal.

New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens, flying for Susi Air, appears in new video 100323
New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens, flying for Susi Air, has been held hostage by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) since February 7. Image: Jubi TV screenshot APR

The group has also asked the government to call on Jakarta to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit West Papua given the gravity of the current crisis with mounting human rights violations.

They want an independent third party to be involved in the talks with the TPNPB to “achieve a peaceful solution to the impasse”.

The open letter, signed by WPAA’s Maire Leadbeater, Reverend Brian Turner and Catherine Delahunty, was endorsed by16 local organisations and community leaders, 10 international organisations and community leaders, and 14 individuals.

The text of the letter:

13 May 2023

Rt Hon Chris Hipkins
Prime Minister

Hon Nanaia Mahuta
Minister of Foreign Affairs

Parliament Buildings

Kia Ora Prime Minister Hipkins and Foreign Minister Mahuta,

We know that you share our deep concern for the safety and wellbeing of pilot Philip Mehrtens who was abducted by the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) on 7 February 2023. In the succeeding weeks fears for Philip’s safety and that of the local community have escalated as more and more military have poured into the Nduga area. Tragically there have been several killings on both sides. Villagers have been forced to flee their homes and food gardens, risking their health in a desperate effort to escape the conflict.

We are especially worried currently because the Indonesian authorities have announced proposal to implement a “combat alert operation” in the area. There have been reports, including from Philip Mehrtens himself, of bombing in the area. This military heavy approach will only extend the cycle of violence and instil more fear and resentment toward the government.

As you know, West Papuan resistance to Indonesian rule dates from 1963 when Indonesia first took administrative control of the region. The armed resistance movement, the Free Papua Movement, or OPM, was formed as early as 1965, and their struggle has been ongoing since that time. In more recent years, peaceful forms of resistance have increased. This is a very welcome development, but unfortunately Indonesia fails to tolerate even the most peaceful forms of dissent such as vigils and prayer meetings. In the last few days peaceful pro-Papuan rights demonstrations have been broken up by police in Bali, Makassar and in Jayapura.

From what we know New Zealand has approached this difficult situation in the spirit of trying to resolve the situation peacefully and through dialogue and negotiation. We strongly support this approach. We deeply regret that Indonesia’s hard-line approach has come at a time when the TPNPB were signalling a more flexible approach to negotiation.

We commend to your attention the statement of influential Church leaders in West Papua. Catholic Bishop Yanuarius You, who is himself Papuan, has joined with his fellow Protestant Church leaders to call for a withdrawal of troops and to chart a way forward to peace. Bishop You said on 26 April:

We do not want civilian casualties, therefore, with utmost respect, we ask the President of the Republic of Indonesia to strongly order the military commander to withdraw troops from Papua. And it is necessary to take a humanitarian approach, namely through negotiations.

The Church leaders have offered their services as trusted leaders in the Papuan Community and have called on all parties to observe a “humanitarian pause” to enable successful negotiation to proceed.

As the Church leaders pointed out the withdrawal of security forces should be seen as the application of a “very noble face”, because it would promote the dignity of every human being.

We believe that there is also a need for the involvement of a neutral international agency, such as the United Nations and/or other skilled and experienced international negotiating body.

We therefore appeal to you to:

  • take up the call of the Church leaders for the withdrawal of forces and a “humanitarian pause” in your ongoing negotiations with the Government of Indonesia and the TPNPB aimed at the release of New Zealand citizen Philip Mehrtens.
  • Call on Indonesia to allow the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit West Papua urgently because of the gravity of the present situation.
  • Call on Indonesia to allow an external party to be involved in the talks with the West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB) in order to achieve a peaceful solution to the impasse.

Ngā mihi,
Maire Leadbeater
Rev. Brian Turner
Catherine Delahunty
West Papua Action Aotearoa

Copy to Her Excellency Fientje Maritje Suebu,
Embassy of Indonesia,
70 Glen Rd,

Endorsed by:
Mons. Gerard Burns, PP Te Ngākau Tapu parish for Māori, Wellington.
Dr Heather Came, STIR (Stop Institutional Racism)
Tigilau Ness, Polynesian Panthers Legacy Trust Representative.
Barbara Frame, West Papua Support Dunedin
Professor Steven Ratuva, Director of the MacMillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies & Professor of Anthropology, University of Canterbury
Rev Hamish Galloway, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa NZ
Rev Peter Taylor, President, Methodist Church of Aotearoa-NZ
Edwina Hughes, Coordinator, Peace Movement Aotearoa
Dr Treasa Dunworth, Associate Professor, University of Auckland, Aotearoa New Zealand
Robert Reid, President, First Union
Morgan Godfery, First Union, Aotearoa
Dr Heather Devere, Chair, Asia Pacific Media Network, Auckland
Dr David Robie, Editor, Asia Pacific Report, Tāmaki Makaurau, and deputy chair of the NGO Asia Pacific Media Network
Leilani Salesa, Oceania Interrupted
Aotearoa Section, Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom
Greenpeace Aotearoa.

Human Rights Monitor

Papuan Medical Community Without Border (Komunitas Medis Papua Tampa Batas)
Merdeka West Papua Support Network (Philippines)
Joe Collins, Australia West Papua Association (Sydney)
Papua Partners (United Kingdom)
Samenwerkende Organisaties voor West Papua (SOWP) (Solidarity Organisations for West Papua), Netherlands.
International IPMSDL (International Indigenous Peoples Movement for Self Determination and Liberation)
Dr Cammi Webb-Gannon, Coordinator, West Papua Project, University of Wollongong
Jim Elmslie, West Papua Project, University of Wollongong
Ronny Kareni, Individual Scholar, West Papua Project, University of Wollongong

Dr Heather Devere
Dr David Robie
Megan Hutching
Dr Philip Temple ONZM
Dr Tony Fala
Rev Mua Strickson Pua
Che Strickson-Pua
Dr Tony Fala, Volunteer, Community Services Connect Trust, South Auckland.
Keith Locke (former Member New Zealand Parliament)
Sue Bradford (former Member New Zealand Parliament)
Leilani Salesa
TeRito Peyroux-Semu
Patricia Stickland-Morse
Mihaela Stickland-Kaiser
Sina Brown Davis

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