An Indonesian military raid into Papua New Guinea over the weekend threatens to undermine a friendship treaty signed last year between the two nations. ``This is serious. It could potentially lead to future exchanges between the two nations,'' warns David Hegarty, a Papua New Guinea watcher and senior fellow at Australian National University.
Over the weekend, an Indonesian platoon raided a PNG village in the West Sepik Province near the Irian Jaya border. Shots were fired and five PNG hostages were taken. Four were later released but one is reportedly still being held.
Apparently Indonesian troops were after Melanesian Free Papua Movement (OPM) rebels opposed to Indonesia's occupation of the former Dutch colony of Irian Jaya. Some 9,000 Irian Jayan refugees have settled just over the jungle border in Papua New Guinea and OPM rebels often hide among them.
This incident marks the first time in the long-running border dispute that Indonesian troops have taken captives in PNG. It is the third Indonesian incursion in a week and the seventh this year. Not since 1984, when a mass exodus of Irian Jayans into Papua New Guinea occurred, have there been somany border incidents in such a short period.
Papua New Guinea lodged an official protest yesterday with Indonesia, calling the border incursion a ``blatant violation'' of its territory.
``PNG is unflinching about its sovereignty,'' notes Peter King, head of Sydney University's Peace and Conflict Studies Center.
``This border raid violates the spirit and letter of the treaty of friendship and cooperation just signed,'' he adds.
The friendship treaty was designed to ease border tensions and broaden the two nations' relationship beyond such concerns. Why Indonesia would risk jeopardizing this agreement is unclear.
Mr. King speculates that Indonesian troops are mimicking OPM rebel tactics and sending a signal to Papua New Guinea to get tougher on the OPM.
Technically, the OPM is outlawed in Papua New Guinea, which recognizes Indonesia's sovereignty in Irian Jaya. But there is much public sympathy in Papua New Guinea for the OPM, and refugee camps have been a source of support for the guerrilla movement for some time.
Despite concerns over Indonesian incursions, there are at least two opportunities ahead for defusing tension.
Next week, Papua New Guinea's foreign minister, Michael Somare, visits Jakarta for talks. And early next month, a Joint Border Committee meeting between senior Indonesian and Papua New Guinean officials is also planned.