COMMENTARY: By Yamin Kogoya
Papuan Governor Lukas Enembe had an hour-long meeting with Russian Ambassador Lyudmila Vorobyeva, accompanied by the director of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Jakarta this week. On the table, an invitation for President Vladimir Putin to visit Papua later this year.
The governor also had his small team with him — Samuel Tabuni (CEO of Papua Language Institute), Alex Kapisa (Head of the Papua Provincial Liaison Agency in Jakarta) and Muhammad Rifai Darus (Spokesman for the Governor of Papua).
As a result of this meeting, social media is likely to run hot with heated debate.
This isn’t surprising, considering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, hotly condemned in the West.
Speculation is rife whether Indonesia — as chair of the G20 group of nations — will invite President Putin to attend the global forum in Bali later this year.
Governor Enembe is not just another governor of another province of Indonesia — he represents one of the biggest settler-colonial provinces actively seeking independence.
Considering Enembe’s previous rhetoric condemning harmful policies of the central government, such as the failed Special Autonomy Law No.21/2021, this meeting has only added confusion, leaving both Indonesians and Papuans wondering about the motives for the governor’s actions.
Also, the governor has invited President Putin to visit Papua after attending the G20 meeting in Bali.
Whether President Putin would actually visit Papua is another story, but this news is likely to cause great anxiety for Papuans and Indonesians alike.
So, what was Monday’s meeting all about?
Papuan students in Russia
Spokesperson Muhammad Rifai said Governor Enembe had expressed deep gratitude to the government of the Russian Federation for providing a sense of security to indigenous Papuan students studying higher education in Russia.
He thanked the ambassador for taking good care of those who received scholarships from the Russian government as well as those who received scholarships from the Papua provincial government.
The scholarships were offered to Papuan students through the Russian Centre for Science and Culture, which began in 2016 and is repeated annually.
Under this scheme, Governor Enembe sent 26 indigenous Papuans to the Russian Federation on September 27, 2019, for undergraduate and postgraduate studies.
As of last year, Russia offered 163 places for Papuan students, but this number cannot be verified due to the high number of Indonesian students seeking education in Russia.
The ambassador also discussed the possibility of increasing the number of scholarships available to Papuan students who want to study in Russia. Governor Enembe appreciates this development as education is a foundation for the land of Papua to grow and move forward.
The governor also said Russia was the only country in the world that would be willing to meet Papua halfway by offering students a free scholarship for their tuition fees.
Along with these education and scholarship discussions, Rifai said the governor wanted to talk about the construction of a space airport in Biak Island, in Cenderawasih Bay on the northern coast of Papua.
The governor was also interested in the world’s largest spaceport, Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, which is still operating today and he hoped to gain insight from the Russian government.
Building a Russian cultural museum in Papua
As part of strengthening the Russia-Papua relationship, Governor Enembe asked the Russian government to not only accept indigenous Papuan students, but to also transfer knowledge from the best teachers in Russia to students in Papua.
As part of the initiative, the governor invited Victoria from the Russian Centre for Science and Culture to Papua in order to inaugurate a Russian Cultural Centre at one of the local universities.
However, Governor Enembe’s desire to establish this relationship is not only due to Russian benevolence toward his Papuan students studying in Russia.
The Monday meeting with the Russian ambassador in Jakarta and his invitation to President Putin to visit Papua were inspired by deeper inspiration stories.
The story originated more than 150 years ago.
Governor Enembe was touched by the story he had heard of a Russian anthropologist who lived on New Guinea soil, and who had tried to save New Guinean people during one of the cruellest and darkest periods of European savagery in the Pacific.
His name was Nikolai Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay (1846 –1888) — a long forgotten Russian messianic anthropologist, who fought to defend indigenous New Guineans against German, Dutch, British, and Australian forces on New Guinea island.
His travels and adventures around the world — including the Canary Islands, North Africa, Easter Island, China, Thailand, Malaysia, Australia, the Philippines, and New Guinea — not only expanded his knowledge of the world’s geography, but most importantly his consciousness. This made him realise that all men are equal.
For a European and a scientist during this time, it was risky to even consider, let alone speak or write about such claims. Yet he dared to stand in opposition to the dominant worldview of the time — a hegemony so destructive that it set the stage for future exploitation of islanders in all forms: information, culture, and natural resources.
West Papua still bleeds as a result.
His campaign against Australian slavery of black islanders — known as blackbirding — in the Pacific between the 1840s and 1930s, and for the rights of indigenous people in New Guinea was driven by a spirit of human equality.
On Sunday, September 15, 2013, ABC radio broadcast the following statement about Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay:
He was handsome, he was idealistic and a mass of disturbing contradictions. He died young. That should have been enough to ensure his story’s survival – and it was in Russia, where he became a Soviet culture hero, not in the Australian colonies where he fought for the rights of colonised peoples and ultimately lost.
ironic and tragic
The term Melanesia emerged out of such colonial enterprise, fuelled by white supremacy attitudes. As ironic and tragic as it seems, Papuans in West Papua reclaimed the term and used it in their cultural war against what they consider as Asian-Indonesian colonisation.
It is likely that Miklouho-Maclay would have renamed and redescribed this region differently if he had been the first to name it, instead of French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville (the man credited with coining the term). He arrived too late, and the region had already been named, divided, and colonised.
In September 1871, Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay landed at Garagassi Point and established himself in Gorendu village in Madang Province. Here he built a strong relationship with the locals and his anthropological work, including his diaries, became well known in Russia. The village where he lived has erected a monument in his name.
Miklouho-Maclay’s diaries of his accounts of Papuans in New Guinea during his time there have already been published in the millions and read by generations of Russians. The translation of his dairies from Russian to English, titled Miklouho-Maclay – New Guinea Diaries 1871-1883 can be read here.
C.L. Sentinella, the translator of the diaries, wrote the following in the introduction:
The diaries give us a day-to-day account of a prolonged period of collaborative contact with these people by an objective scientific observer with an innate respect for the natives as human beings, and with no desire to exploit them in any way or to impose his ideas upon them. Because of Maclay’s innate respect, this recognition on his part that they shared a common humanity, his reports and descriptions are not distorted to any extent by inbuilt prejudices and moral judgements derived from a different set of values.
In 2017, the PNG daily newspaper The National published a short story of Miklouho-Maclay under the title “A Russian who fought to save Indigenous New Guinea”.
The Guardian, in 2020, also shared a brief story of him under title “The dashing Russian adventurer who fought to save indigenous lives.” The titles of these articles reflect the spirit of the man.
After more than 150 years, media headlines emphasise his legacy. One of his descendants, Nickolay Miklouho-Maclay, who is currently director of Miklouho Maclay Foundation in Madang, PNG, has already begun to establish connections with local Papuans both at the village level and with the government to build connections based on the spirit of his ancestor.
Enembe seeks Russian reconnection
Governor Enembe believes that Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay’s writings and work profoundly influence the Russian psyche and reflect how the Russian people view the world — especially Melanesians.
This was what motivated him to arrange his meeting with the Russian ambassador on Monday. The Russians’ hospitality toward Papuan students is connected to the spirit of this man, according to the governor.
It is a story about compassion, understanding, and brotherhood among humans.
The story of Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay is linked to the PNG side of New Guinea. However, Governor Enembe said Nikolai’s story was also the story of West Papuans too now — because he fought for all oppressed and enslaved New Guineans, Melanesians, and Pacific islanders.
Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay’s ideas, beliefs and values — calling for the treatment of fellow human beings with dignity, equality and respect — are what are needed today.
This is partly why Governor Enembe has invited President Putin to visit Papua; he plans to build a cultural museum and statue in honour of Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay.
“The old stories are dying, and we need new stories for our future,” Governor Enembe said. “I want to … share more of this great story of the Russian people and New Guinea people together.”
Yamin Kogoya is a West Papuan academic who has a Master of Applied Anthropology and Participatory Development from the Australian National University and who contributes to Asia Pacific Report. From the Lani tribe in the Papuan Highlands, he is currently living in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.