20 Feb 2023

The pilot, the rebels and West Papua's independence struggle

From The Detail, 5:00 am on 20 February 2023

Kiwi pilot Phillip Mehrtens was unlucky - he was in the wrong place at the wrong time when he was taken hostage by a rebel group in West Papua. The Detail takes a closer look at West Papua's complicated independence struggle.

New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens was photographed with his rebel captors in Indonesia's Papua region.

New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens was photographed with his rebel captors in Indonesia's Papua region. Photo: Supplied/TPNPB

How did a Christchurch pilot end up a pawn in the decades-long struggle for West Papua's independence?

Dr Cammi Webb-Gannon from Australia's University of Wollongong, an expert on decolonisation in the Pacific, calls Phillip Mehrtens "incredibly unlucky". 

"He was flying for a commercial airline, I've read that he was flying to support his family, he'd had a series of job losses because of Covid for other airlines, so he'd returned to fly for this Indonesian airline, which happened to have him placed in West Papua." 

Mehrtens was taken hostage earlier this month by the rebel group the West Papua National Liberation Army.

Webb-Gannon has called him the latest pawn in the conflict that's been going on for 60 years.

Numerous groups in West Papua, many of them non-violent, have demanded independence from Indonesia.

But Webb-Gannon says there's a significant reason why Indonesia doesn't want to acknowledge West Papua as its own country.

"West Papua is home to the largest golden copper mine in the world...which pays extremely large revenue to the Indonesian government. The Indonesian government stands to lose an unfathomable amount of money if West Papua is no longer under their control."

RNZ's Johnny Blades spent years covering West Papua. It's difficult for journalists to get into the area, but he did in 2015.

"It is a beautiful place...but it quickly came apparent there's a certain heat to it, like a climate of fear where the more Papuans you spoke to, you realise they weren't really free to speak out about stuff and you just know there are security forces all around."

He says the liberation army's capture of Mehrtens isn't a good thing, but he calls its actions "desperate".

"Neither them or the peaceful activists have been really listened to by the international community and they want the international community to do something about it."

He says New Zealand could be a part of the solution.

"New Zealand is seen as an honest broker in the region, remember we have been involved with peacekeeping efforts, in the Bougainville conflict... it took New Zealand rather than Australia to be able to successfully broker a peace deal. It's a huge foreign policy success, you never hear about it, it should be sung from the rooftops... perhaps it could play a similar role in Papua." 

Hear more about the complex background to the struggle in West Papua in the full podcast episode.

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