Uday Bakhshi – On April 14, the West Papua National Liberation Army (TPNPB) shot at a small plane that was landing at an airstrip in Intan Jaya Regency in Indonesia's restive Papuan provinces (Twitter/@udayxSEA, April 14).  The TPNPB asserted that it would continue to target aircraft and pilots, including foreigners, after the attack. This attack came more than two months after the TPNPB kidnapped a New Zealander pilot, Philip Mehrtens, in Nduga Regency in the West Papuan highlands in February (thejakartapost.com, February 7).
The TPNPB group in Nduga is led by Egianus Kogoya. He is a young commander and has made his local branch one of the most active and violent of all TPNPB branches. For Mehrtens release, the TPNPB is demanding negotiations with Indonesia to gain independence for West Papua. On April 15, the TPNPB in Nduga also ambushed Indonesian security forces conducting search operations for Mehrtens and claimed to have killed 15 soldiers. The Indonesian military initially denied this and claimed only one soldier died and a few others were injured, although the military has since admitted that five soldiers were killed. There are also reports stating at least six soldiers lost their lives (liputan6.com, April 23; abc.net.au, April 17; jubi.id, April 18).
Regardless of the truth regarding efforts to rescue Mehrtens, the fact remains that the incident demonstrates the TPNPB's ability to conduct large-scale attacks on Indonesian forces, even in areas with increased security. It also shows how violence can further intensify as the TPNPB scales-up attacks. This, in turn, will likely result in harsher security operations.
Reviving threats to foreigners
Threats to foreigners are not new in Papua. For example, 27 years ago, Egianus Kogoya's father was involved in the months-long kidnapping of five Indonesians and six foreigners from a World Wildlife Expedition in Mapenduma. His father, however, was killed during the Indonesian military rescue mission, along with several other Papuan fighters, who killed two of the Indonesian captives.
There have also been two other notable incidents in which foreigners were shot dead while they were traveling, in 2002 and 2009. However, in both cases there were allegations of involvement by the Indonesian security forces in the ambushes.  These incidents happened around the lucrative Grasberg mine project, and there are suspicions that they were motivated by financial considerations (andreasharsono.net, April 9, 2007; smh.com.au, July 18, 2009). The Grasberg mine is controversial, as it symbolizes the exploitation of Papuan lands and resources – Grasberg has the largest known gold reserves of any mine in the world, and the second largest copper reserves – and reinforces colonial narratives.
The risk to foreigners in the region decreased in the 2010s, even though violence continued. This was the case until March 2020, when the TPNPB killed a New Zealand Grasberg employee and injured multiple Indonesians (antaranews.com, March 30, 2020). The TPNPB and Papuans have called for the closure of the mine; the TPNPB continues to issue threats against it but has not conducted an attack there since March 2020. In March 2021, the TPNPB also held a New Zealand pilot hostage for a few hours in Puncak Regency but released him after negotiations with local villagers (kompas.com, March 13, 2021).
This came two months after the TPNPB threatened to attack an American pilot in Intan Jaya Regency, although local community members helped take the pilot to safety (kompas.com, January 7, 2021). Thus, it is apparent that the TPNPB aspires to target foreigners and is increasingly issuing threats toward them, mainly due to the international attention that such operations garner. In contrast, when Egianus's TPNPB had kidnapped 15 Indonesian teachers and health workers in 2018, the incident evoked little interest internationally, and as a result put little pressure on Jakarta domestically.
Rising violence for attention
Alongside the recent spate of attacks targeting foreigners, the TPNPB has been killing more Indonesian civilians and increasingly attacking the military. In 2022, nearly 40 civilians were killed by the TPNPB, a more than two-fold increase from the 18 civilians killed the year before. As the TPNPB gains strength, more non-Papuans are likely to be targeted.
The increasing violence has been gaining significant attention domestically. The TPNPB was designated a "terrorist organization" by the Indonesian government in 2021 after it killed General I Gusti Putu Danny Nugraha Karya, the Papua branch chief of the State Intelligence Agency. General Danny was the highest-ranking Indonesian military official to have been killed in the decades-long conflict (thejakartapost.com, April 26, 2021). However, no other country or international organization has designated the Papuan insurgents as a "terrorist group."
Pro-Papuan independence groups have always called for more attention to the conflict and Indonesia's alleged atrocities, while Jakarta has restricted access to and media coverage of West Papua. The TPNPB has also asked why Western countries that are supporting Ukraine and other conflicts militarily do not do the same for West Papua. The increased domestic and international attention towards the region is putting pressure on Jakarta's response to the increasing violence, especially with the kidnapping of Mehrtens. International scrutiny is likely imposing some degree of restraint in Indonesia's retaliation against the TPNPB and West Papuans. Domestically, there are still questions regarding the sustainability of Jakarta's often heavy-handed, security-based approach towards West Papua (koran.tempo.co, April 17).
The insurgency in West Papua is intensifying. The targeting of foreigners is not necessarily a new strategy, but the TPNPB is likely to utilize it going forward, as it brings more international attention to the West Papua conflict. The group will also continue attacks against security forces, Indonesian migrants, aircraft, infrastructure, and other targets. The TPNPB's increasing violence seems to be part of a wider strategy to obtain international attention, supplementing the TPNPB's and the larger Papuan independence movement's political efforts and outreach. There are parallels between the Papuan insurgency and that of East Timor, which gained independence from a harsh Indonesian occupation through armed resistance and international campaigning. For the TPNPB, this provides hope – and possibly a framework for the future.
1. The Papuan provinces were annexed by Indonesia in the 1960s under controversial circumstances. The 1969 Act of Free Choice was a referendum that formalized West Papua's integration into Indonesia. The referendum is viewed by many as dubious at best, as Indonesia handpicked more than 1,000 Papuans, who were intimidated by the military to vote in favor of integration.
2. There are various theories – some more credible than others – that indicate how the military may have been involved in the ambushes. One such theory is that the ambushes justified sustaining military operations in Papua, drawing significant state money to support the deployments.