What You Need to Know:
New Zealand Pilot Philip Mehrtens, who has been held captive by fighters of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) for nearly six months, is said to be “healthy” and “bored,” according to detikSumbagsel, citing Indonesian Major General Izak Pangemanan. Back on May 31, TPNPB leader Egianus Kogoya threatened to execute Mehrtens if Indonesian officials did not start talks to recognize West Papuan independence, giving them a two month deadline. Despite this, independence talks never started and it has been nearly a month since the deadline passed with Mehrtens still being alive.
Why it Matters:
The Free Papua Movement (OPM) has been vying for Papuan independence from Indonesia since the 1960s, where its fighting groups have waged a low-intensity insurgency against local military forces, as well as mining and logging companies, in the region. Fundamentally, OPM believes in complete Papuan sovereignty against colonialization, modernization, and industrialization, which it views as a threat to its indigenous culture and natural resource rich Papuan lands. Papuan separatists often carry out guerrilla-style raids, ambushes, and kidnap for ransom operations of foreigners in the country to progress their political objectives and achieve independence.
The fighters carry a captured Pindad SS1-V1 assault rifle, various craft-made rifles and iconic BOWS & ARROWS. pic.twitter.com/UIK49Ezvyb
— War Noir (@war_noir) June 3, 2023
The TPNPB, an armed wing of the OPM, regularly conducts raids against military and industrial targets in the region, becoming a more recognizable group in the region due to their use of bows and arrows. The TPNPB has some more modern firearms, which are often looted from dead Indonesian troops or taken during raids against local security forces.
For the TPNPB, Mehrtens may be their only bargaining chip in jump starting negotiations for independence, which is a far stretch. Their most realistic option would be to negotiate for Indonesian military operations to cease in the region, however, even this unlikely to happen. Mehrtens’ fate remains unknown, as the TPNPB have threatened to execute him if the Indonesian government does not start negotiations to address Papuan independence.
Mehrtens, pilot of Susi Air, was captured on February 7 after landing at the village of Paro, located in the Papuan highlands. The aircraft was quickly surrounded by TPNPB fighters, who released the five civilian passengers because they were indigenous Papuans. Mehrtens was taken captive, with TPNPB leader Egianus Kogoya initially saying he would only be released if Indonesia recognized Papaun independence.
“We’re taking the pilot hostage, not for anything else, but for Papua’s freedom,” Kogoya said in a video statement, adding “He will be safe with me as long as Indonesia does not use its arms, either from the air or on the ground.”
Over the coming days and weeks, TPNPB would release several proof of life photos and videos of Mehrtens.
Tentara Pembebasan Nasional Papua Barat (TPNPB) merilis video dan sejumlah foto kondisi terbaru Pilot Susi Air, Philip Mark Mehrtens yang telah satu bulan terakhir mereka sandera. pic.twitter.com/yCBdaoL1TD
— Kang Melanesian? (@onanpeyon_) March 10, 2023
After Mehrtens’ capture, Indonesian officials quickly spun up search efforts and negotiations with local tribal leaders to secure his release. New Zealand officials initially stressed the prioritizing of negotiations to prevent potential harm to the pilot, who maintains that he is in “good health.” In the following months, however, Indonesian forces launched a series of failed attempts to rescue Mehrtens, resulting in clashes and casualties on both sides. In one instance, at least six Indonesian soldiers were killed while looking for Mehrtens during a TPNPB ambush on April 17.
While TPNPB initially demanded that Mehrtens would only be released if Indonesia recognized Papuan independence, they signaled to Reuters in April that they have dropped that demand and are seeking to negotiate the pilot’s release because he is “not our enemy.”
Head of Public Relations of the Papua Regional Police, Ignatius Benny Ady Prabowo, told the Indonesian media outlet Medcom that negotiations have been difficult as Kogoya “does not want to accept the invitation to negotiate” and communication has seemingly stopped. Prabowo added that Kogoya had demanded 5 billion rupiah (337,000 USD), drugs, and firearms, which was refused. He finished by saying that Indonesian officials and local leaders were still trying to keep negotiations alive as military forces continue to search for Mehrtens.
Brigjend Egianus Kogoya kasih Waktu 2 bulan kedepan kepada negara-negara agar menekan indonesia untuk mengakui kedaulatan West Papua. "Kalau tidak, pilot akan kami bunuh" pic.twitter.com/plXRvmL4Zn
— Jefry Wenda (@jefry_wnd) May 26, 2023
On May 31, The West Papua National Liberation Army- Free Papua Organization (TPNPB- OPM) threatened to execute captured New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens if Indonesia does not start the process to recognize West Papuan independence in two months. It has been nearly a month since that deadline has passed and Indonesian Major General Izak Pangemanan told Indonesian Media outlet detikSumbagsel that “We see in the photo the [Mehrtens] is not thin, the person is healthy, the clothes are always neat,” adding that “His face is not stressed, just bored. Egian takes good care of him, so what are we worried about?” Papua Police Chief Inspector General Mathius Fakhiri also reported that Kogoya is still demanding a 5 billion rupiah ransom as the military remains reluctant to launch a rescue operation due to the safety of Mehrtens.