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NZ pilot hostage drama remains an impasse

Philip Mehrtens
New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens flying for Susi Air held hostage by West Papua National Liberation Army on 7 February (Jubi TV screenshot)


BRISBANE - The West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), released a video last Wednesday of the Susi Air pilot they have taken hostage.

The plane had landed in Paro village, Nduga Regency in Papua’s highlands men kidnapped Captain Philip Mehrtens, a New Zealander.

On the video, Mehrtens’ read his captors’ words, his voice trembling but calm:

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 realise 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, and continued:.

“It seems that this could go on for a long time.

“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 impasse began on 7 February when Egianus Kogoya and his TPNPB force attacked and destroyed a small plane owned by Indonesian airline, Susi Air.

This was the most recent incident in an unending war whose roots can be traced to the mismanagement of West Papua by the Dutch, the United Nations, the United States and Indonesia in the 1960s.

The hostage takers have been condemned by some people as terrorism, while others see it as a strategy by OPM to further their liberation cause.

Indonesia’s mainstream media have portrayed the fighters as an armed criminal group, while others are indecisive or sympathetic.

The Daily Mail in Australia demonstrated this conflicting view with its 16 February 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’.

Jakarta – trying to justify the wars and murders since the 1960s - has consistently branded Papuans who oppose its rule as terrorists and criminals.

But, unlike the Daily Mail, other international media - including Aljazeera, BBC, ABC, CNN, Reuters, Guardian and Washington Post - chose to use the name preferred by most Papuans, the West Papua National Liberation Army of the Free West Papua Movement.

Historically, West Papua has been dissected, renamed and redefined by foreign powers as it became an outpost of foreign imperialism where plentiful resources could be exploited and scrounged.

For more than a month since the kidnapping, Jakarta has refused to listen to OPM's demands and refused to seek international assistance for Mehrtens’ release.

The kidnapped pilot's safe return to his family and friends is of the utmost importance.

For Egianus and his OPM army, the main issue is the independence of Papua.

For Jakarta, it is territorial integrity.

Since the kidnapping, there have been many tragedies, displacements, shootings and killings in the highlands of Papua.

To help prevent further bloodshed, the OPM’s Benny Wenda and Papuan religious leaders have sought to secure Mehrtens’ release.

The TPNPB has refused to negotiate with their representatives and has threatened to shoot them if they enter their territory.

Mehrtens has warned that the crisis, and his predicament, may last for some time.

The situation is difficult to resolve because it has to do with ideology, as  explain in this article in The Diplomat.

Jakarta is unlikely to even consider OPM’s demands. Losing West Papua would be like losing Indonesia itself.

Papuans’ existence under Indonesian rule has a bleak future. There are 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.

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.

Papuans view Indonesia as an illegal foreign colonial occupier, while Indonesians see themselves as legitimate rulers.

Given this, who will be the negotiators for Mehrtens’ release? OPM have 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.

Indonesian army commander, Yudo Margono also rejected an offer of help from New Zealand, stating he is still able to free Mehrtens.

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?


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