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Asia Pacific Report

An Australian author-poet and advocate for West Papuan independence has condemned a reported threat against the life of a New Zealand hostage pilot, Philip Mehrtens, held by Papuan liberation fighters and appealed to them to “keep Philip safe”.

Jim Aubrey, a human rights activist who has campaigned globally on freedom struggles in East Timor, West Papua and Tibet, declared such a threat was “not in his name”.

In a statement in English and Bahasa today, Aubrey said he would never support a “senseless and stupid act”  such as killing pilot Mehrtens, who has been held captive in the remote Papuan highlands for more than three months since February 7.

A plea to keep the NZ hostage pilot safe
A plea to keep the NZ hostage pilot safe. Image:

“Any acts of braggadocio and careless support by any West Papuan group and/or solidarity members of this current threat, in thinking that international governments are going to suddenly act with governance of care and respect are baseless and profoundly naive,” he said.

“The list of criminal accessories to Indonesia’s six decades of crimes against humanity is very long . . . long enough for anyone to know that they do not care.”

Aubrey said he believed that a third party, “such as an appropriate minister from Papua New Guinea who has previous and ongoing affiliation with OPM, should act as the intermediary on the ground to resolve the crisis”.

He called for immediate withdrawal of the more than 21,000 Indonesian security forces  from the Melanesian region that shares a land border with Papua New Guinea.

“Included in this approach is the immediate cessation of all Indonesian air and ground combat operations and the immediate exit of Indonesian defence and security forces from all conflict regions in West Papua,” he said.

Other West Papuan activists and advocates have also criticised the reported threat.

According to Reuters news agency and reports carried by the ABC in Australia and RNZ today, the West Papuan rebels had threatened to shoot 37-year-old Mehrtens if countries did not comply with their demand to start independence talks within two months.

Citing a new video released yesterday by the West Papua National Liberation Army-OPM (TPNPB-OPM) yesterday, the news reports said the fighters, who want to free Papua from Indonesian rule, kidnapped Mehrtens after he landed a commercial plane in the mountainous area of Nduga. The guerillas set the aircraft ablaze.

In the new video, a Mehrtens holds the banned Morning Star flag, a symbol of West Papuan independence, and is surrounded by Papuan fighters brandishing what one analyst said were assault rifles manufactured in Indonesia.

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

Mehrtens is seen talking to the camera, saying the pro-independence rebels want countries other than Indonesia to engage in dialogue on Papuan independence.

“If it does not happen within two months then they say they will shoot me,” Mehrtens said in the video, which was shared by West Papuan rebel spokesperson Sebby Sambom.

The video was verified by Deka Anwar, an analyst at the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), according to the news agency reports.

A spokesperson for New Zealand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in an e-mail to Reuters today that they were aware of the photos and videos circulating.

“We’re doing everything we can to secure a peaceful resolution and Mr Mehrtens’ safe release,” the spokesperson added.

Indonesia’s military spokesperson Julius Widjojono said today that the military would continue to carry out “measureable actions” in accordance with standard operating procedure.

The Indonesian Foreign Ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

Prioritising ‘peaceful negotiations’
Indonesian authorities have previously said they were prioritising peaceful negotiations to secure the release of the Susi Air pilot, but have struggled to access the isolated and rugged highland terrain.

A low-level but increasingly deadly battle for independence has been waged in the resource-rich Papua region — now split into five provinces — ever since it was controversially brought under Indonesian control in a vote overseen by the United Nations in 1969.

The conflict has escalated significantly since 2018, with pro-independence fighters mounting deadlier and more frequent attacks, largely because they have managed to procure more sophisticated weapons.

Rumianus Wandikbo of the TPNPB — the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement — called on countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Western nations to kickstart talks with Indonesia and the pro-independence fighters, reports Reuters.

“We do not ask for money…We really demand our rights for sovereignty,” he said in a separate video.

This article is republished under a community partnership agreement with RNZ.

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