It’s the decades-long human rights tragedy next door that Australia avoids. Abuses in Myanmar, Syria, Palestine, Ukraine and other hate hotspots get stern condemnation sometimes backed by sanctions, arms and sanctuary for refugees. But Indonesia’s brutal suppression of separatists in West Papua goes untouched. It’s a story likely to end badly – then contine, Duncan Graham reports.
It’s easy being morally upright when the brutalities and agonies are far away. When adjacent, and the offender is big, powerful, outnumbering us 11-to 1, and a vital trader, concerns get muted. President Theodore Roosevelt’s ‘big stick’ foreign policy advice has been tweaked by Canberra to: ‘Speak softly and carry a small twig’.
The 2006 Lombok Treaty was assembled after John Howard’s government gave 43 West Papua asylum seekers protection visas to Jakarta’s fury. They sailed to Australia carrying a sign accusing Indonesia of genocide.
The treaty has both nations showing mutual respect for the sovereignty, territorial integrity, national unity and political independence and non-interference in the internal affairs of one another’.
This means Indonesia won’t comment on deaths of Aborigines in custody and we won’t talk about deaths of West Papuans in military actions.
This cosy arrangement was ruptured on 7 February this year, when NZ pilot Phil Mehrtens was kidnapped by the West Papua Liberation Army (TPN-PB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM) now officially designated a terrorist group. The man’s a Kiwi, but we’re supposed to be cousins and fellow humans so should be deeply disturbed.
The 37-year-old aviator was grabbed by armed men when he landed his single-engined Pilatus Porter PC6 on a mountain airstrip as part of a routine flight delivering supplies and ferrying building contractors. The aircraft owned by Indonesian company Susi Air was torched after the local passengers were released.
Three weeks ago the TPN-PB released videos purporting to show an apparently fit Mehrtens with an aggressive gang carrying a mixed armoury – from ancient to modern – bows and arrows, spears and hefty firearms.
Since then there’s been an almost total news blackout in the province where the Indonesian military keeps journos at bay. Ironically, your correspondent got a permit to visit last century when the hard-line dictator General Soeharto was in power, but is denied one now Indonesia claims to be open and democratic.
Mehrtens’ captors originally said they’d release him if Jakarta gave the province its independence – a demand that will never be met for a hundred billion reasons. In US dollars, that’s the estimated value of gold and copper reserves in West Papua’s Grasberg mine, one of the biggest deposits in the world, partly owned by the US miner Freeport McMoRan. Grasberg is now Indonesia’s biggest taxpayer.
The Asia Times reported the abductors are led by Egianus Kogoya, 24, a man harbouring hate. The Indonesian military (TNI) claims it knows where he’s hiding and has his camps encircled.
The NZ Government has pleaded with Indonesian authorities to keep their assault weapons on safety fearing their citizen could be killed deliberately or in crossfire. The two countries have different agendas: Wellington wants Mehrtens free and unharmed – Jakarta wants his captors destroyed. The other danger is that the pilot will fall seriously sick in his jailers’ jungle hideaway and need medical attention, which he won’t get as long as both sides remain unbending.
Last month TPN-PB spokesman Sebby Sambom issued an explanation for the kidnapping: ’The military and police have killed too many Papuans. From our end, we also killed. So it is better that we sit at the negotiation table… Our new targets 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.’
Indonesian Human Rights Watch researcher Andreas Harsono, who knows Sambom, told Radio NZ: ‘I do not know how to measure the seriousness of such a threat but this is a hostage situation, things could be out of control. So the best way is to negotiate and ask them to release the pilot.’
At the time of writing, Mehrtens is still in captivity and it has been reported that the kidnappers are demanding $U5 mill and arms for his release.
Based on history, hopes for a resolution using words don’t look promising. In 1996, four Britons, five Indonesians and two Netherlanders – one pregnant and all part of a World Wildlife Fund research party – were held for over four months. Then, as now,the OPM demanded independence. Faith leaders and the Red Cross were involved in negotiations, but an agreed settlement went badly wrong at the last minute.
The crack special forces unit Kopassus, led by Prabowo Subianto, then slipped their AK 47s into automatic. Two Indonesian captives and eight OPM fighters were killed during the forced release, including Kogoya’s dad Daniel Yudas. Five Indonesian soldiers died in a helicopter crash.
An ABC Four Corners program ‘Blood on the Cross’ covered the rescue and aired allegations troops had used a Red Cross chopper, or lookalike, to deceive the hostage-takers. (Prabowo will be a candidate in next year’s Presidential election.)
The TPN-PB isn’t into benign chats. Four years ago, its members shot down 24 Indonesians working on a major highway. A retaliatory military op allegedly displaced 60,000 villagers. Despite deploying more than 21,000 troops following the 2021 ambush and killing of Brigadier General Gusti Putu Danny Karya Nugraha, head of Indonesian intelligence in the region, their enemy remains elusive.
President Joko ‘Jokowi’ Widodo, who has visited the province several times, ordered an even heavier response after Mehrtens was seized. ‘I want to emphasise again that there is no place for armed groups in Papua.’ Parliament’s Speaker Bambang Soesatyo was tougher and more foreboding. ‘Destroy them first. We will discuss human rights matters later.’
West Papuan separatist movement
There’s little sympathy for the Papuan separatists across Indonesia. This is despite the four years of guerrilla warfare against the Dutch colonialists just after WWII, at an estimated cost of 100,000 lives. Although successive governments have tried to integrate the Melanesians under the nation’s motto of Bhinekka Tunggal Ika (Unity in Diversity), racism remains.
In 2019, there were riots in the East Java capital Surabaya when a student dormitory was stoned by locals reportedly chanting ‘slaughter the Papuans’ after stories dashed around of an Indonesian flag being trashed. The Papuans alleged they were called ‘monkeys’- 43 were arrested.
The tree of pain took root when the western half of Papua (then Irian Jaya) wasn’t included in the transfer of the Dutch East Indies to an independent Indonesia. In the late 1960s, the UN organised a referendum to determine control of the mineral-rich half-island.
The Indonesian military selected 1025 men from an estimated 800,000 residents to vote in the so-called Act of Free Choice, dubbed by some observers as “an act free of choice”. Unsurprisingly, the handpicked ‘representatives’ put their hands up to join Indonesia, which set about consolidating control.
This included a transmigration programme shifting landless Muslim Javanese to the largely Christian provinces of Papua and West Papua. Highways are being cut through forests and mountains to encourage ‘equitable development and peace’, angering the locals who fear the invasion is unstoppable and extinction inevitable unless they fight..
Murders have also fueled fury. Last month, a military court jailed four soldiers for terms from 15 years to life for premeditated slaughter and mutilations of four civilian Papuans.
Not all killings have directly involved Indonesian security forces, but do show they’ve yet to establish order. Last month nine people were killed and 14 wounded during a riot triggered by rumours about a child being kidnapped, according to Reuters.
The US NGO Genocide Watch claims the Indonesian military has killed up to half a million West Papuans ‘since their war for independence began,’ a figure impossible to verify.
Indonesian media stories that the pilot will be freed in return for cash and arms have been denied by his captors as military propaganda, and their aim for independence remains. However, a ransom payment may eventually be the only way to get Mehrtens home without bloodshed.
That will need brave and trusted intermediaries to negotiate a deal. After the failed 1996 Red Cross attempt, there won’t be too many takers.
Editors note 29/8/2023: After searching for six months the Indonesian military (TNI) has so far failed to free Mehrtens.