Jakarta – Misinformation is rampant in this digital era, but the lack of transparency on the part of the government regarding the ongoing attempts to rescue a New Zealand pilot who was abducted by Papuan separatist rebels almost three months ago is equally disturbing.
Worse, it could send the wrong message that it has deliberately misled the public, the taxpayers who will demand accountability of every rupiah spent on the operation to release the foreigner.
First of all, the Indonesian Military (TNI) played down any use of force and instead supported negotiations to bring Phillip Mehrtens back home safely. The reality is military troops deployed for the joint operation in Papua called the Peaceful Cartenz, which replaced the Nemangkawi Operation last year, have been combing the jungles in the hilly Papuan regency of Nduga to hunt down members of the West Papuan Liberation Army (TPNPB) and locate Mehrtens.
The hostage-taking took place on Feb. 7 in Paro airport in Nduga after the TPNPB guerillas burned the Susi Air aircraft Mehrtens piloted. All passengers on board were let go unharmed.
In the latest video released on Monday by Mehrtens' captors, the pilot said he was alive and healthy and called on the Indonesian authorities to stop the airstrikes. The New Zealander said Indonesia had dropped bombs in the area where he was being held, putting him and other people's lives at risk.
The TNI denied on Thursday that they had used bombs, saying the report was part of the separatist group's propaganda to discredit Indonesia. In 2021, the London-based Conflict Armament Research told Reuters the purchase of thousands of mortar bombs from Serbia by the State Intelligence Agency (BIN) for use in Papua. A local reverend told Reuters he bore witness to bomb attacks by drones on several Papuan villages in October of that year, but BIN flatly denied such allegations.
Notwithstanding the accusations, the military's hostage release mission is underway and looks set to intensify, following a firefight in the Mugi-Mam area in Nduga on Saturday. TNI chief Adm. Yudo Margono raised on Monday the status of the military operation to "ground combat ready," which equals the alertness level of naval forces protecting the illegal fishing-prone waters of the North Natuna Sea.
Yudo confirmed the fatality of a TNI soldier in an April 22 skirmish, the fifth personnel killed in restive Papua this year alone. The TPNPB, however, claimed to have shot dead a dozen of the 36-strong squadron in the exchange of fire in Mugi-Mam.
Despite the series of attacks, Yudo has promised not to deploy reinforcement troops to deal with hostage takers. But due to the difficulties facing the domestic and international media in accessing information on the ground in Papua, the outside world can hardly verify how things develop in the efforts to release Mehrtens, and on the restoration of peace and order in the strife-torn territory in general.
The public has, for example, remained in the dark about how many military and police troops are in place in Papua. With the formation of new provinces in Papua recently, it should make sense for the TNI and the National Police to fly in more personnel. The reinforcements do not take into account ad hoc operations like the Peaceful Cartenz, border patrols and, if any, covert operations.
The government, too, has remained silent about the progress of negotiations conducted by local figures and religious leaders to persuade the TPNPB to set Mehrtens free. The continuing military operations only signal the dialogue is stalled.
But given the fact that the cycle of violence has inflicted nagging wounds to the Papuans, not to mention the injustice resulting from impunity for perpetrators of atrocities, dialogue should be the only choice to pursue. Instead of readiness to combat, Jakarta only needs the willingness to start a dialogue.
A devastating tsunami accelerated peace talks in Aceh in 2005. The human casualties in Papua are already too many to trigger a dialogue for peace restorations in Papua.