Hostage situation reinforces tensions in Papua

2 December 2023
Authors: Alexandro Rangga, SKPKC Franciscan Papua and Hipolitus Wangge, ANU

It has been almost ten months since the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) abducted New Zealand pilot Philip Merthens on 7 February 2023. There have still been no significant attempts by the Indonesian government to release him.

Indonesia's President Joko Widodo speaks during the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) Leaders event at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) CEO Summit in San Francisco, California, United States, 16 November 2023 (Photo: Reuters/Brittany Hosea-Small).
In July 2023, Indonesian President Joko Widodo emphasised his commitment to resolving the hostage situation through negotiation and other undisclosed means. But the TPNPB has rejected the central government’s initiatives and would still prefer to involve a third party for the release. The hostage situation merely confirms the failure of state-imposed autonomy to provide stability in Papua. The kidnapping displays the ineffectiveness of counterinsurgency in securing the highland areas and a lack of commitment to resolving the country’s longest political conflict.

In 2021, the Indonesian government extended a controversial special autonomy (Otsus) law without meaningful consultation. Over 100 Papuan organisations united to reject continued autonomy, demanding that Jakarta retract Otsus.

The concept of autonomy as a remedy for separatism is rooted in granting substantial power to reduce conflicts and provide stability through effective self-government for aggrieved minorities, while maintaining the cohesion of the host state.

Such an autonomy-based strategy has clearly failed in Papua, as the Indonesia’s highest poverty rates, and the continuing violence and unrest make clear. The 2021 Otsus law in fact recentralises state authority over financial, institutional and political matters in Papua. The law also aims to co-opt Papuan youth to compete for financial support and bureaucratic positions and abandon political mobilisation.

Amid these challenges, as the New Zealand hostage situation drags on, the central government has rejected any foreign intervention and relied mostly on a security approach, involving limited communication with Papuan communities, to resolve it. Unlike well-established counterterrorism methods to track down and prevent potential terrorism in Indonesia, the military-led counterinsurgency has failed to communicate effectively with and quell militant armed groups in Papua.

The military is losing its grip in some highland areas, where eight armed groups operate and have launched a series of attacks against state security forces. It has sought to secure the region under the cover of its conflict response, infrastructure protection, and border protection functions. All of these have been underway without transparency and accountability of formally-declared military operations, which under Indonesian law involve scrutiny from civilian authorities.

The recently signed security cooperation agreement between the United States and Papua New Guinea provides a pretext for the deployment of more troops and the establishment of military stations on the Indonesian side of the border. The new Commander of the Indonesian National Defence Forces, Agus Subiyanto, promised to crush the armed groups and build more territorial commands, as well as create four new provinces in Papua.

The key actors in the conflict maintain divergent views on its resolution, including the hostage situation. The TPNPB has shown its capacity to inflict damage on civilians and Indonesian security forces. But the lack of organisational cohesion has impeded any progress in identifying a trustworthy mediator whom the government and the armed group can both trust.

The Indonesian government is not positioned to exploit this fragmentation — a reality which is unlikely to see violence in Papua reduced or aid the release of the pilot. The central government has also failed to predict and respond to TPNPB’s sporadic attacks. The absence of a central authority to control the relatively independent armed groups in Papua poses a significant challenge to the central government, as it has to negotiate with the Kogeya group in Nduga, where the pilot has been captured, while falling to contain other groups in Papua’s Highlands.

New Zealand, which participated in conflict resolution during the Bougainville conflict, also finds it has limited options for repatriating its citizen. Due to the sensitivity of the issue, the New Zealand embassy is following the Indonesian government’s approach in addressing the situation. The TPNPB group did initiate informal communications with the New Zealand and Indonesian governments, but no significant progress has been made.

The TPNPB understands that killing the pilot will generate backlash to its political aspirations and image. At the same time, the Indonesian government has also calculated that any raid will risk the pilot’s life and tarnish its reputation, as proven in other unresolved human rights cases in Papua. The armed group will not release the pilot without genuine communication and concessions between them and the central government, including reviewing security policies in the area.

The Papua conflict has become more protracted, with both conflicting sides refusing to initiate negotiation to release the pilot and reduce violent escalation. The organisational fragmentation within Papua’s political movement and the central government’s strong commitment to a hard-line approach have made the possibility of a genuine political dialogue to resolve the Papua conflict a distant dream.

Alexandro Rangga, OFM, is Researcher at SKPKC Franciscan Papua.

Hipolitus Wangge is Researcher at The Australian National University.