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West Papua conflict: ‘Taken hostage in a country that has also been taken hostage’

19 May, 2023 

Interview by Spike Keith, adapted by Rawan Saadi 

The Morning Star flag is considered a symbol of West Papua independence and has been banned by Indonesian authorities. Photo: Canva. 

Listen to the full interview 

In February of this year, New Zealand Pilot Phillip Mehrtens was taken hostage by the West Papua National Liberation Army. 

West Papua is one of 38 Indonesian provinces and has been an occupied state since the 1960s.

The region has an indigenous population of Melansian descent who have become a minority among settler groups such as the Javanese population.

For decades there has been a strong push for independence, and since 2018 pro-independence groups such as the National Liberation Army have been in continuous conflict with the Indonesian government. 

Spokesperson for West Papua Action Aotearoa Catherine Delahunty told 95bFM’s The Wire that this is a long-established issue brought to light after the kidnapping of a New Zealand citizen.

According to Delahunty, Mehrtens, who is being held hostage in a remote area in West Papua, has not been physically harmed. 

“They are looking for leverage, looking for the world to notice their struggle, which their neighbours like Australia and New Zealand have done very little about and now will actually take note that a citizen of this country has been kidnapped.”

She explained that although diplomatic work is being done to bring Mehrtens back home, the Indonesian Army is taking a more violent approach by sending in combat-ready troops and bombing villages.

“He has been taken hostage in a country that has also been taken hostage. That is what people need to understand.”

Delahunty emphasised that this kidnapping shows how horrific and pressing the situation is in West Papua.

The conflict has resulted in the displacement of villagers and a growing refugee crisis, with many people facing health issues. 

“What we need is for Indonesia to take a look at themselves and realise that you cannot colonise in the 21st century. People have never accepted being colonised.”

Delahunty said the Indonesian government has long exploited West Papua's rich resources, including palm oil, fertile soil, and several minerals.

An open letter from West Papua Action Aotearoa is calling on Prime Minister Hipkins and Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta to urge for a withdrawal of Indonesian military forces and independent mediation to find a more peaceful solution.

Delahunty commended the government’s response so far as they have not escalated or encouraged the violence but argued the aggressive approach of the Indonesian government requires more urgent intervention.

The open letter is signed by organisations such as Greenpeace Aotearoa and senior academics such as Dr Steven Ratuvan, an expert in pacific issues at the University of Canterbury.