Will Indonesian President Jokowi’s Hostage Negotiations Free the New Zealander Pilot in West Papua?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 21 Issue: 16

Indonesian President Joko Widodo with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese via Chanel News Asia

On May 27, Indonesian President Joko Widodo (“Jokowi”) received a recorded death threat from Egianus Kogoya (“Egi”), the commander of the West Papua National Liberation Army–The Free Papua Movement (TPNPB–OPM) in Nduga region, West Papua Province. Egi stated that he would execute a New Zealander pilot who was brought to his camp after having been taken hostage in February if his demands were not met within two months (bbcindonesia, May 29; westpapuadaily, July 9). Egi expected Jokowi to open trilateral negotiations that involved Indonesia, New Zealand, and the TNPB–OPM. Instead, Jokowi changed course and engaged in “heart-to-heart” diplomacy with Papua New Guinea and Australia, whom Jokowi describes as Indonesia’s most important neighbors and strategic partners in the Pacific (detik, July 3).

Jokowi’s International Diplomacy

Since taking office in 2014, Jokowi has advocated for a “soft approach” towards the TPNPB–OPM, utilizing negotiations and international diplomacy where Indonesia’s first two presidents, Sukarno and Suharto, would have once applied force (westpapuadaily, July 4). Jokowi provided his full support to the head of the Nduga Regency in the latter’s efforts to negotiate directly with Egi to release the pilot. Further, Jokowi strengthened bilateral relations with Australia and Papua New Guinea, respectively, during his presidential visits to said countries from July 3 to July 5. The two countries are thought to host the greatest number of supporters for West Papuan independence in the region. Using “heart-to-heart” diplomacy with his counterparts, he explained his strategy and sought their support in minimizing the West Papua conflict and the TPNPB’s demands. On his way back from Australia and Papua New Guinea, Jokowi also made his seventeenth visit to West Papua, with an eye towards the fulfillment of his campaign promise to prioritize West Papua’s development (kompas, July 3; bbc, July 7).

Prior to Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese’s visit to Indonesia on June 6, 2022, the Chairman of the Diplomatic Council of the Free Papua Movement (OPM), Akouboo Amatus Douw—who was granted asylum by Australia in 2006—sent a letter to Prime Minister Albanese. He requested that the West Papua conflict be discussed with President Jokowi (pina, July 4; hot.grid.id, June 8, 2022). As there was no progress made in response to the letter, so too was there also little done regarding Egi’s threats. Due to the breakdown of talks, Egi ceased all communication with Indonesian officials on June 10.

Egi’s Responses to Jokowi

In an effort to generate international media attention, Jeffrey Pagawak Bomanak—a TPNPB militant based in Papua New Guinea and claiming to have the full support of Israel—posted on June 27 a threat on social media that the TPNPB would execute the pilot in just four days, on July 1. July 1 has symbolic importance, as it is the anniversary of the establishment of the OPM (kompas, June 30; cnnindonesia, July 3; disway.id, July 12). Instead of complying with Bomanak’s plan, however, Egi, maintained his own timeline in the hostage negotiations. Egi permitted Douw and the Speaker of the TPNPB, Sebby Sambom, to issue a statement denying the July 1 execution date.

Through his spokesman, Egi toned down the death threat, but demanded the withdrawal of Indonesia’s military from West Papua and the establishment of an international mediation format for peace negotiations (jubi.id, July 1). In addition, the TPNPB decried colonialism and illegal actions in sacred lands as his movement’s true adversaries, rather than the New Zealander pilot or the presence of Indonesian troops (pina, July 4). The TPNPB agreed to release the pilot on the condition that Jakarta and New Zealand open channels of communication where the TPNPB can set forth its demands. Egi’s requests are predicated on an assumption that a majority of Australia and New Zealand’s citizens would support West Papuan independence (tempo, July 4; bbc, July 7).

Jokowi’s Responses to Egi

Jokowi issued a statement in response to the TPNPB on July 3, just before his trip to Australia and Papua New Guinea. In it, he assured the international community that while he could not disclose his strategy in full, his preferred means of freeing the New Zealander hostage remains negotiations. On his first day in Australia, Jokowi had a second private conversation with Albanese—the first occurring during the Australian PM’s visit to Indonesia on June 6, 2022 (setkab.go.id, July 4; brief.id, July 5; cnbcindonesia, June 6, 2022).

On the second day of his visit to neighboring Papua New Guinea, Jokowi pledged to provide scholarships for the next generation of Papua New Guineans to study in Indonesia (kemlu.go.id, July 6; suarapapua, July 6). Thus, the outcome of the two bilateral summits not only strengthened the relationship of Indonesia with Australia and Papua New Guinea, but also signaled those two countries’ support for Jokowi’s policy of establishing social justice and welfare in West Papua in order to resolve the conflict and reassert Indonesian sovereignty over the territory. Yet Jokowi’s international diplomacy would not be complete if he did not touch the “hearts and minds” of the victims of the West Papuan conflict, thereby showing his commitment to the region. As such, on his journey back to Indonesia after the two successful bilateral summits, Jokowi spent three days in West Papua (sbs.com.au, July 7).

Negotiations Underway

On July 7, while inaugurating the Papua Street Carnival in Jayapura, West Papua, Jokowi disclosed he held an internal meeting with his negotiation team the preceding night; Jokowi cautioned that while his approach may appear quiet on the face of things, it was nevertheless actively at work (westpapuadaily, July 8). Furthermore, Jokowi stated that 99 percent of West Papua is safe and secure, based on what he observed during his three-day visit. He emphasized that the conflict was a minor issue that TPNPB propaganda has been able to inflate into a much larger and negative issue. Hence, Jokowi strongly suggested focusing on larger positive outcomes, such as the creation of new West Papuan creative industries, to include the venue he was speaking at, the Papua Street Carnival (detik, July 7).

While Jokowi was concentrating on his soft approach, on July 13, the TPNPB’s three-year-long internal conflict between Sebby Sambom and Jeffrey Pagawak Bomanak reignited (disway.id, July 13). Sambom denounced Jeffrey’s status as TPNPB–OPM Chairman and declared that the latter was a criminal, and therefore not a true member of the TPNPB. According to Sambom, the OPM has never existed as such, and is only a name. Sambom also refuted Egi’s assertion that Sambom, Akouboo Amatus Douw, and Jeffrey are united. In addition, Sebby forbade Egi and TPNPB–OPM Commander-in-Chief Goliath Tabuni from interacting with Jeffrey.

Meanwhile, Jeffrey asserted that the TPNPB–OPM only dispatched a delegation to negotiate the release of the New Zealand pilot with a letter of authorization (disway.id, July 13). As the two-month deadline neared at the end of July—and with the ongoing internal conflict within TPNPB–OPM—the prospect of releasing the New Zealander hostage diminished. Jokowi, nevertheless, continued to declare that he was prepared to negotiate (tempo.id, July 4; rri.go.id, July 12).


Even though diplomacy plays a significant role in the West Papuan conflict, it may not exert sufficient pressure on the TPNPB–OPM to release the New Zealander hostage. However, even if negotiations do not resolve the matter immediately, this would not constitute a failure. Instead, Jokowi’s bilateral summits with Australia and Papua New Guinea, as well as his seventeen visits to West Papua, serve as a platform to demonstrate Indonesia’s continued commitment to the “soft approach” towards securing the New Zealander pilot’s release.