The incident in a remote highlands region has drawn renewed attention to one of the world’s least-known conflicts.When Phillip Mehrtens landed his single-propeller Pilatus plane on the runway in Paro in the highlands of Papua, it was supposed to be a quick turnaround.
He would drop off his five passengers – all Indigenous Papuans – collect a group of health workers from a nearby clinic and fly back to the booming town of Timika closer to the southern coast.
But as the small plane sat on the runway at the end of February, a group of independence fighters sensed an opportunity. They grabbed Mehrtens, a New Zealander, and his passengers and set the plane on fire.
While the passengers were soon freed, Mehrtens remains in the hands of the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPN-PB), the armed wing of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), which has been fighting since 1969 for independence from Indonesia.
The incident in the remote highlands region of Nduga, one of the most restive areas of a restive province, has drawn renewed attention to one of the world’s least-known and longest-running conflicts.
“It’s a major military hotspot for the Indonesian military and the ‘guerrilla’ army,” Cammi Webb-Gannon, an expert on the situation in Papua at Australia’s University of Wollongong, told Al Jazeera. “He was in the wrong place at the wrong time. It was probably entirely opportunistic.”
The TPN-PB, which has not taken hostages in decades, has said Mehrtens will be released only if Papua is given independence. In the latest video, released last weekend, the pilot said his captors would shoot him if their demands were not met within two months.Soon after Mehrtens’s abduction, Indonesia deployed police and soldiers into the rugged highland district in an attempt to rescue him. The months since have seen a number of clashes.
Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Mahfud MD assured local media that the Indonesian government was making every effort to secure Mehrtens’s release, noting that Jakarta would prioritise a “persuasive approach” but could not rule out “other options”.
Officials in Mahfud’s and the president’s office did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Outsiders, including foreign journalists, international organisations and diplomats require special permission to visit the region, which makes it difficult to get a sense of what is really happening on the ground.
Papua, whose people are ethnically Melanesian, occupies the western half of the island of New Guinea – just 200 kilometres (124 miles) north of Australia – and shares a land border with Papua New Guinea (PNG).
Once a Dutch colony, like Indonesia, Papua was known as Dutch New Guinea and governed separately from Indonesia, which was called the Dutch East Indies.
When Indonesia secured independence in 1949, Papua remained under Dutch control and, inspired by nationalist struggles from Africa to Asia, Papuan activists began to push for independence. They even raised their own flag – the now-banned Morning Star – and established other symbols of statehood.
But independence was anathema to Indonesia, which saw Papua as an integral part of its territory.
Negotiations at the United Nations secured an agreement in 1962 that gave Indonesia control but required it to consult the Papuans if it wanted to formally incorporate the territory within its borders.
Seven years later, after Indonesia had banned the Papuan flag and disbanded the ruling Papuan Council set up by the Dutch, the issue was put to a referendum.
The Act of Free Choice was a time of “hope” for many Papuans who thought they would finally have a say in their destiny, according to Emma Kluge, an expert on anti-colonial activism and decolonisation in the Pacific at the European University Institute.
But when the vote took place on August 2, 1969, only about 1,000 Papuans were allowed to take part out of more than 815,000 people living in the territory at the time.
The controversial result came out in favour of Indonesia, which made Papua the country’s 26th province and renamed it Irian Jaya – igniting a low-level rebellion that has rumbled ever since.
While Jakarta maintains Papua is an integral part of the archipelago – a December 2021 report championing President Joko Widodo’s initiatives in the province noted several times it had “always” been part of Indonesia – Papuans say the territory’s wealth of natural resources is the real draw.
Most well-known is the Grasberg mine, one of the world’s largest deposits of gold and copper, which is controlled by Jakarta in a deal with the United States’s mining giant Freeport-McMoRan.