“Phil Mehrtens is the nicest guy, he genuinely is – no one ever had anything bad to say about him”, says a colleague of the New Zealand pilot taken hostage this week by members of the West Papuan Liberation Army (TPN-PB) in the mountainous Nduga Regency.
How such a nice guy became a pawn in the decades-long conflict between West Papua and the Indonesian government is a tragic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. But it is also a symbolic and desperate attempt to attract international attention towards the West Papuan crisis.
A joint military and police mission has so far failed to find or rescue Mehrtens, and forcing negotiations with Jakarta is a prime strategy of TPN-PB. As spokesperson Sebby Sambom told Australian media this week:
The military and police have killed too many Papuans. From our end, we also killed [people]. So it is better that we sit at the negotiation table […] Our new target are all foreigners: the US, EU, Australians and New Zealanders because they supported Indonesia to kill Papuans for 60 years. Colonialism in Papua must be abolished.
Sambom is referring to the international complicity and silence since Indonesia annexed the former Dutch colony as it prepared for political independence in the 1960s. Mehrtens has become the latest foreign victim of the resulting protracted and violent struggle by West Papuans for autonomy.
Violence and betrayal
The history of the conflict can be traced back to 1962, when the US facilitated what became known as the New York Agreement, which handed West Papua over to the United Nations and then to Indonesia.
In 1969, the UN oversaw a farcical independence referendum that effectively allowed the permanent annexation of West Papua by Indonesia. Since that time, West Papuans have been subjected to violent human rights abuses, environmental and cultural dispossession, and mass killings under Indonesian rule and mass immigration policies.
Read more: How the world failed West Papua in its campaign for independence
New Zealand and Australia continue to support Indonesian sovereignty over West Papua, and maintain defence and other diplomatic ties with Jakarta. Australia has been involved in training Indonesian army and police, and is a major aid donor to Indonesia.
Phil Mehrtens is far from the first hostage to be taken in this unequal power struggle. Nearly three decades ago, in the neighbouring district of Mapenduma, TPN-PB members kidnapped a group of environmental researchers from Europe for five months.
Like now, the demand was that Indonesia recognise West Papuan independence. Two Indonesians with the group were killed. The English and Dutch hostages were ultimately rescued, but not before further tragedy occurred.
At one point, negotiations seemed to have stalled between the West Papuan captors and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which was delivering food and supplies to the hostages and working for their release.
Read more: Fight for freedom: new research to map violence in the forgotten conflict in West Papua
Taking matters into their own hands, members of the Indonesian military commandeered a white civilian helicopter that had been used (or was similar to one used) by the ICRC. Witnesses recall seeing the ICRC emblem on the aircraft. When the helicopter lowered towards waiting crowds of civilians, the military opened fire.
The ICRC denied any involvement in the resulting massacre, but the entire incident was emblematic of the times. It took place several years before the fall of former Indonesian president Suharto, when there was little hope of West Papua gaining independence from Indonesia through peaceful negotiations.
Then, as now, the TPN-PB was searching for a way to capture the world’s attention.
Since the early 2000s, with Suharto gone and fresh hope inspired by East Timor’s independence, Papuans – including members of the West Papuan Liberation Army – have largely been committed to fighting for independence through peaceful means.
After several decades of wilful non-intervention by Australia and New Zealand in what they consider to be Jakarta’s affairs, that hope is flagging. It appears elements of the independence movement are again turning to desperate measures.
In 2019, the TPN-PB killed 24 Indonesians working on a highway to connect the coast with the interior, claiming their victims were spies for the Indonesian army. They have become increasingly outspoken about their intentions to stop further Indonesian expansion in Papua at any cost.
In turn, this triggered a hugely disproportionate counter-insurgency operation in the highlands where Phil Mehrtens was captured. It has been reported at least 60,000 people have been displaced in the Nduga Regency over the past four years as a result, and it is still not safe for them to return home.
Read more: West Papua is on the verge of another bloody crackdown
It is important to remember that the latest hostage taking, and the 1996 events, are the actions of a few. They do not reflect the commitment of the vast majority of Indigenous West Papuans to work peacefully for independence through demonstrations, social media activism, civil disobedience, diplomacy and dialogue.
Looking forward, New Zealand, Australia and other governments close to Indonesia need to commit to serious discussions about human rights in West Papua – not only because there is a hostage involved, but because it is the right thing to do.
This may not be enough to resolve the current crisis, but it would be a long overdue and critical step in the right direction.
Negotiations for the release of Philip 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.