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This week our top story looks at the ongoing hostage situation in West Papua – and the warning signs that were overlooked ahead of time. We also have an interview with Muqtedar Khan, an Indian American academic and professor of international relations at the University of Delaware, on anti-Muslim sentiment in India.
The Diplomat Brief
August 23,
Welcome to the latest issue of Diplomat Brief. This week our top story looks at the ongoing hostage situation in West Papua – and the warning signs that were overlooked ahead of time. We also have an interview with Muqtedar Khan, an Indian American academic and professor of international relations at the University of Delaware, on anti-Muslim sentiment in India.
Story of the week
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Could the Papua Hostage Situation Have Been Prevented?

What Happened: In February, a pilot from New Zealand, Philip Mehrtens, landed a flight at Paro airfield in Papua province, Indonesia. He was immediately taken hostage by fighters of the West Papua Liberation Army (TPNPB). TPNPB demanded that New Zealand help arrange negotiations with the Indonesian government over Papuan independence – otherwise, the group said, Mehrtens would be killed. Over six months later, Mehrtens remains in TPNPB custody, despite ongoing operations by the Indonesian military.

Our Focus: West Papua has been the site of a long-running armed separatist movement, running parallel to a peaceful push for increased autonomy for the region. The Indonesian government, to date, has largely ignored the governance demands and instead focused on a military-first response, aimed at rooting out the insurgency by force. Predictably, this has only exacerbated tensions in the region. Dutch journalist Rohan Radheya, who has previously worked inside Papua with armed elements within the Free Papua movement, explained why Mehrtens was targeted by the separatists: “Those pilots bring in transmigrants, personal apparatus, and supplies that they [the TPNPB] consider a threat to their cultural survival. The wounds run too deep.” He added,“Foreigners were warned as early as 2018 not to venture there.” Yet despite numerous near-misses, Susi Air, the airline that Mehrtens was flying for, continued to operate flights into the conflict-ridden area – defying warnings from both separatists and the Indonesia military.

What Comes Next: Veronica Koman, an Indonesian human rights activist and lawyer, noted that the messy situation is one more episode in years of intractable conflict: “I understand the despair of TPNPB because the international community has turned a blind eye to what is happening in West Papua, but still this hostage-taking cannot be justified,” she said. “But at the same time, I really regret the stubbornness of the Indonesian government in rejecting mediation assistance from the international community.” Meanwhile, what happens next could shape the world’s perceptions of the Free Papua movement. Radheya recalled a previous hostage-taking that ended badly: “This can very well end up the same way, a thorn in the flesh for decades and decades to come if he [Mehrtens] is eventually killed.”

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Behind the News


Muqtedar Khan

Muqtedar Khan, a professor of international relations at the University of Delaware, on the roots of religious nationalism: “The Partition was a catastrophe for the entire South Asia… Religious nationalism is a recipe for disaster and the current plight of Indian Muslims is a direct consequence of Jinnah’s vision and the emergence of copycat Hindu nationalism, which essentially embraces the same idea of religious nationalism.”

Read the interview
This Week in Asia

Northeast Asia

Xi’s South Africa Trip

Chinese leader Xi Jinping is in South Africa this week to attend the BRICS summit and a bevy of bilateral meetings. The summit will be crucial for the future of the loose grouping; China is pushing an effort to expand BRICS – with an eye toward countering the U.S.-led G-7 – while fellow members India and Brazil are more hesitant. Speaking of India, another big question is whether Xi will have a bilateral meeting with Indian PM Narendra Modi, amid continued tensions on the disputed border between China and India. Either way, it will be an eventful week for Chinese diplomacy – even if Xi is forgoing the usual tradition of stringing together multiple country visits.

Find out more

South Asia

Pakistan Under New Management

Pakistan has a new prime minister, as Shehbaz Sharif has stepped down to make room for a caretaker government. The choice of caretaker PM –  Senator Anwaar-ul-Haq Kakar – came as a surprise to many. The previously obscure politician hails from Balochistan; the choice was officially explained as an attempt to give the long-trouble province more clout on the national stage. However, in Balochistan itself Kakar is viewed with suspicion due to his unflinching support for the military. Whatever Kakar’s government plans, we can expect it to last longer than usual, with no date set for elections as a redistricting exercise awaits.

Find out more

Southeast Asia

Thaksin Returns to Thailand as New PM is Selected

Former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra returned to Thailand on Tuesday after 15 years in self-exile, on the same day as Pheu Thai, the political party affiliated with him, succeeded in forming the country’s next government. After greeting red-clad supporters at Bangkok’s Don Mueang Airport, the fugitive leader was escorted to prison to begin the sentence for corruption that prompted him to leave the country in 2008. Just hours later, Parliament selected Pheu Thai’s Srettha Thavisin as the country’s 30th prime minister, ending a political deadlock that has dragged on since the general election in May. The return of Thaksin, the long-time bête-noire of Thailand’s conservative elites, reflects the dramatic realignment that has taken place in the country’s politics since the election, which was won by the Move Forward Party (MFP), a more radical alternative to Pheu Thai. Thaksin’s party has since joined hands with two military-backed parties that it once staunchly opposed. Given the MFP’s pledges to break up concentrated wealth and amend Thailand’s controversial royal defamation law, Thaksin and the Pheu Thai Party now look to royalist conservatives very much like the lesser of two evils.

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Central Asia

Kyrgyzstan's Social Democrats Carry On

In Kyrgyzstan, political parties are, more often than not, vehicles for personalities. The Social Democratic Party of Kyrgyzstan (SDPK) was Almazbek Atambayev’s. Amid his downfall in 2019, the party fractured, eventually living on as the Social Democrats. Earlier this year Atambayev was released from prison to seek medical treatment abroad and was swiftly invited to Spain. More recently he was pictured with the Spanish prime minister, illustrating the Social Democrats' international outreach, despite their limited domestic electoral clout.

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Visualizing APAC

China has lifted its pandemic restrictions, but Xi Jinping’s travel abroad remains far below pre-COVID norms.

See the full picture
Word of the Week


Thoát Trung

Vietnamese for “escaping China’s orbit,” a topic of much discussion as the country considers a strategic partnership with the U.S.

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Central Asia Comes Out of the Russian Shadow

The Diplomat Magazine | August 2023

Central Asia Comes Out of the Russian Shadow

This month, our cover story details the new wave of interest in reclaiming local identity – and shedding the legacies of Russian and Soviet colonialism – in Central Asia. We also explore “colonial nostalgia” in Hong Kong, uncover the imperialist roots of today’s South China Sea disputes, and trace how South Asia’s struggles with authoritarianism reflect a dark inheritance from the British Raj. And, of course, we offer a range of reporting, analysis, and opinion from across the region.

Read the Magazine

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