Armed Papuan Separatists Hold NZ Pilot Hostage


27-02-2023: Picture this scenario. Armed fighters threaten to kill construction workers who are building a health care centre in a remote area, accessible only by plane or helicopter. The construction workers take refuge in a priest’s house to avoid being massacred. A pilot is sent on an evacuation mission and manages to rescue them. Returning with supplies, his plane is stormed by the armed fighters, his five passengers are released – but he is held hostage. The fighters then threaten to kill the pilot unless the government agrees to their demands. These fighters are then reported to be “rebels”, and rather than being denounced as terrorists, liberals and the media laud them as brave warriors facing persecution for their political cause. What exactly is going on here?

Infrastructure building targeted by separatists

Welcome to the upside-down world of the West Papuan “movement for independence” from Indonesia. The holding of the New Zealand pilot Philip Mehrtens by armed Papuan separatists is the latest chapter in ongoing episodes of violence which characterise their actions. Mr Mehrtens is a pilot for Indonesian aviation company Susi Air[1] who was given the task by his employers of rescuing 15 construction workers who were threatened with their lives by armed Papuan separatists. Mr Mehrtens managed to do this, and then it appears he returned on February 7 with 5 passengers in a plane which was also carrying 450 kilograms of supplies from Timika, a mining town in a neighbouring province. It was at this point that separatists from the so-called West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) stormed the plane after it had landed in Paro in the Nduga region, released the five passengers, took Mr Mehrtens hostage – and set fire to the plane. Sebby Sambom, a TPNPB spokesperson, said that they were holding the pilot and would kill him if their demands were not met.[2]

Further, Sambom wrote on Facebook that the TPNPB would never release Mr Mehrtens unless Jakarta made the Papua region independent from Indonesia. He went on to write that if Jakarta refused to negotiate or intervened militarily, then the New Zealand pilot “will be executed”.[3] Sambom has also implied that this was part of retaliation against New Zealand, Australia, the US and Europe who had supported the Indonesian National Police, which had supplied weapons used to kill West Papuans since 1963.[4] The Indonesian government no doubt has received shipments of weapons from Western countries, but the Indonesian government has repeatedly stated that the militarisation of Papua only occurs in response to provocations from the armed Papuan separatists. Without giving the Indonesian government political support, such statements appear to be verifiable. The Indonesian authorities also have a responsibility for other citizens not involved in the conflict. For example, Indonesian military command spokesperson for Papua, Colonel Herman Taryaman stated that 167 people had fled the Paro district in Nduga regency in fear of violence after the hostage taking incident.[5]

So we have a situation where the Indonesian government is attempting to build infrastructure for all Papuans, in a remote area, which in this case is a health care centre. The armed separatists threaten to kill the construction workers building the health care centre, and then storm and set fire to a plane carrying supplies, taking a pilot hostage. 167 local residents flee for their lives from the area. TPNPB commander Eganus Kogeya then demands that all flights into Paro airport be stopped.[6] They then assert that the pilot will be executed unless their demands are met. Is this a political movement for a cause, or just all round brigandage? 

History of violence

A slightly different path is taken by other wings of the Papuan separatist movement. Benny Wenda, who lives in Oxford in the United Kingdom, is “President” of the United Liberation Movement for West Papua (ULMWP). Mr Wenda in fact fled from Papua to avoid arrest for inciting attacks on police stations, including at Abepura in 2000, where two people perished.[7] Largely unbeknownst to West Papua independence supporters, Benny Wenda would be arrested if he returned to Indonesia. Nevertheless, Mr Wenda parades as a responsible leader in exile. In relation to the Paro hostage taking incident, he stated that the West Papuans are pursuing national liberation peacefully, through diplomatic political mechanisms. This is scarcely what has been happening, and he himself was a part of violent attacks in the past. He claimed that the “rebels” are demanding: the removal of Indonesian troops from West Papua, a United Nations (UN) investigation into alleged human rights violations, a referendum on independence, and a cancellation of Papua’s ‘special autonomy’.[8]

This flowery language may certainly fool liberals in the West, but this allegedly diplomatic and political road cannot obscure the history of violence the various armed separatists have used and continue to employ in Papua today. In July last year, armed separatists killed 10 traders and an indigenous Papuan who had travelled from other islands. Sebby Sambom later claimed responsibility for the attacks, claiming the victims were spies for the Indonesian government. Last March, separatist militia killed eight technicians who were repairing a remote telecommunications tower. In December 2018, 30 road construction workers and a soldier were killed in one of the separatists’ worst onslaughts.[9] In October 2019, separatists set fire to public buildings and a marketplace in Wamena, where 30 people lost their lives, and 22 of them were non-Papuan.[10]

While there is a section of a West Papuan “independence” movement, in Papua and internationally, which engages in political protests which do not include violence, at no point do these elements distance themselves or even state any disagreement with the pitiless cruelty of the armed Papuan separatist militias. In this case, the armed separatists are delaying the building of a health care centre in a remote area of Papua, and more than 160 innocent villagers have been displaced, fearing that a conflict between the separatists and the military could endanger their safety. At the least, this indicates that not all residents of Papua support a separate “independence”, and are not prepared to politically back such a cause. In fact, only a tiny minority of Papuans are prepared to engage in armed violence against the Indonesian military. The majority would prefer to live in peace alongside all others.


The Indonesian government refer to the armed Papuan separatists as “armed criminal groups” or KKB.[11] Mohammad Mahfud, the Indonesian government’s co-ordinating Minister for political, security and legal affairs, said that the government is attempting to persuade the separatists to release the pilot, but would not rule out using other methods. “Taking civilians hostage for any reason is unacceptable”, were his words.[12] National Police Chief Listyo Sigit Prabowo stated that an operational team would be deployed to rescue the pilot and passengers of the Susi Air plane who were being held hostage.[13] These passengers have subsequently been released, while the pilot remains a hostage. Whilst socialists offer no political endorsement of the Indonesian government, working people should not stand in the way if this government acts to resolve a hostage situation, protecting civilians by doing so. In fact, there is no basis for opposing the Indonesian government using the police and the military to ensure the safety of construction and other workers who are building basic infrastructure for all Papuans – especially health care centres!

Many liberals and self-proclaimed “socialists” in the West fall for the winsome lure of the slogan of “Free West Papua”. They are running a fool’s errand. Although they can barely conceive it, the real drive of the armed Papuan separatists is one based on ethnic antagonism towards non-Papuan Indonesians. Western liberals cannot imagine that some within an indigenous people could act in a discriminatory way towards others, let alone use life-taking wanton violence to this end. Yet it occurs and occurs regularly. The area referred to as West Papua is home to over 250 indigenous Papuan tribes,[14] and over 400 distinct languages. To communicate with each other, the language they use is Bahasa Indonesian. It makes no sense to somehow separate from Indonesia, while continuing to use the lingua franca of the Indonesian archipelago.

While there certainly are some issues that arise from the transmigration of Austronesian people to the Melanesian lands of Papua, the state of Indonesia is necessarily one which requires harmony between the more than 1000 ethnicities present within a population of over 270 million people.[15] Any movement which involves the slightest element of ethnic tension can never be supported by the left, let alone socialists. To justify a movement for a separate state, there needs to be overwhelming evidence of irrefutable circumstances. Yet hostage taking, open armed attacks on basic infrastructure, threats to kill as well as actually taking of lives of those building infrastructure for the use of all those who reside in Papua, reckless conflict with authorities causing innocent villagers to flee – such acts would scarcely be taken by those who are confident that the masses and the world at large would support their cause.

The various armed Papuan separatist groups are thus only targeted by the Indonesian police and military due to the immediate danger they pose to themselves and the local populace. This is also why Mohammad Mahfud announced in April 2021 that “organisations and people in Papua who commit mass violence are categorised as terrorist”, as the Indonesian government amended its anti-terrorism law. This has enabled special military units such as Koopssus TNI and Densus-88 to pursue separatist militia such as the TPNPB and the OPM (Organasasi Papua Merdeka) as terrorists. The special forces of Indonesia’s military – or any state military – may well have a murky record. Yet the TPNPB and OPM, and the larger “independence movement” can scarcely argue that the extreme violence and used of armed force by the separatist militia is not used to terrorise many others.

Left parties stump for terror

None of this seems to register for parties of the Australian so-called left. Almost without exception, these self-described “Marxist” organisations jump up and down for West Papuan “independence”. With a little investigation, they might be able to see that, in reality, the “movement for independence” is in fact a movement against transmigration, i.e., the transfer of some people from the over-populated islands of Java, Sumatra, Sulawesi and others into the sparsely populated but larger land mass of Papua. It is acknowledged that a transmigration program such as that carried out by the Indonesian government can have both positive and negative outcomes.[16] Overall, however, socialists should be the last groups on earth to deny Papuans the benefits that flow to them from the economic development which the Indonesian state is working to provide, e.g., transport, electricity, health care and education.[17] Indeed, the Papuan separatists are keenly aware that the more Indonesia develops Papua with vital infrastructure required for modernisation, the less will Papuans have any reason to commit themselves to a fantastical West Papuan “independence”. Hence their turn to brute force.

A movement against transmigration, if described in those terms, would easily be seen as racist. Papuan separatists, who largely rely on Western liberals (and self-identifying “socialists”!) for support, thus instead outline their movement as one of “independence” from “colonialism”. The list of “Marxists” who fall for this three-card trick is close to endless. The Socialist Alliance,[18] Socialist Alternative,[19] the Communist Party of Australia,[20] Communist Party of Australia Marxist-Leninist,[21] the Spartacist League,[22] and even the Bolshevik-Leninist[23] – all give the Papuan separatist terror groups a blank cheque. All of them are swayed by lurid tales of Indonesian government “oppression” in Papua, as if the provision of health care, education, transport and power transmission is an onerous burden.

Genuine Marxism does not uphold the Indonesian government as an ally in a political sense. After all, the Indonesian government aimed to dispense the dangerous Covid vaccines to 70% of its population, despite the health risks.[24] At the same time, real socialism can only begin to be striven for on the basis of working-class unity in Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand and beyond. Papuans should work alongside Indonesians, rather than engage in ethnic antagonism. As far away as it may now seem, the building of Leninist vanguard parties across the Asia-Pacific which uphold Permanent Revolution is the key to a mass movement for workers’ republics throughout Australasia.



[1] (22-02-2023)

[2] (22-02-2023)

[3] (22-02-2023)

[4] (22-02-2023)

[5] (22-02-2023)

[6] (22-02-2023)

[7] (22-02-2023)

[8] (22-02-2023)

[9] (22-02-2023)

[10] (22-02-2023)

[11] (25-02-2023)

[12] (25-02-2023)

[13] (25-03-2023)

[14] (26-03-2023)

[15] (25-03-2023)

[16] (25-03-2023)

[17] (25-03-2023)

[18] (26-03-2023)

[19] (26-03-2023)

[20] (26-03-2023)

[21] (26-03-2023)

[22] (26-03-2023)

[23] (26-03-2023)

[24] (26-03-2023)

Image: Philip Mehrtens (centre) being held hostage by armed separatists in West Papua.

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