Papua’s governor, Lukas Enembe, had an hour meeting with Russian ambassador Lyudmila Vorobyeva, accompanied by the director of the Russian Centre for Science and Culture in Jakarta on Monday, 28 March, 2022. 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 will most likely be ablaze with heated discourse. This isn’t surprising, considering Russia and Anglo-US led NATO war on the Ukraine’s oil that has been broadcast across global media as of late. Rumours are flying, wondering if Indonesia (as the chair of the G-20) will invite President Putin to attend the global forum later in the year.
Adding on to this pressure, Governor Enembe is not just another governor of another province of Indonesia; he represents one of the biggest settler-colonial provinces of Indonesia that is actively seeking independence.
Considering his previous rhetoric condemning the harmful policies of the central government, such as the failed Special Autonomy Law No.21/2021, this meeting has only added to the confusion, leaving both Indonesians and Papuans wondering what the motives are behind the governor’s actions.
Further aggravating the situation, the governor has invited President Putin to visit Papua after attending the G-20 meeting in Bali later this year. Whether or not President Putin will 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?
Muhammad Rifai, Governor’s spoke person said, governor Enembe expressed deep gratitude to the government of the Russian Federation for always providing a sense of security to all Indigenous Papuan students studying higher education in Russia.
He thanked the ambassador for taking good care of those who receive scholarships from the Russian government as well as those who receive 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 slots 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 is certainly appreciative of this development as education is a foundation for the land of Papua to grow and move forward.
The governor also said Russia is the only country in the world that would be willing to meet us halfway by offering our students a free scholarship for their tuition fees.
Along with these education and scholarship discussions, Rifai says the governor wanted to talk about the construction of a space airport in Biak. Biak island is located in Cenderawasih Bay near the northern coast of Papua.
The Governor was also interested in the world’s oldest Baikonur Cosmodrome, which is still operating today and 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 universities there.
However, Governor Enembe’s desire to establish this relationship is not exclusively due to Russian benevolence toward his Papuan students studying in Russia. The Monday’s 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. Mr. Enembe was touched by the story he heard of a Russian anthropologist who lived on New Guinea soil, who attempted to save New Guinean people during one of the cruellest and darkest periods of European savagery in the Pacific.
His name was Nikolai Nikolaevich Mikloucho-Maclay (1846–1888) – a long forgotten Russian Messianic anthropologist in the Western anthropological canon on Melanesia, who fought to defend Indigenous New Guineans against the barbarians of the German, Dutch, British, and Australian on New Guinea island.
Nikolai Miklouho-Maclay pictured with a Papuan boy named Ahmad in this image taken c. 1873. Image: File
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 such claims. Yet he dared to stand in opposition to the dominant worldview of the time – a hegemony so destructive it set the stage for future exploitation of the islanders in all forms: information, culture, and natural resources. West Papua still bleeds as a result.
His campaign against Australian slavery of the black islanders (known as Blackbirding between operations in the Pacific from the 1840s to the 1930s) and for the rights of indigenous people in New Guinea was driven by that spirit of human equality.
On Sunday, September 15, 2013, ABC radio broadcasted the following statement about Nikolai Mikloucho-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.
Even though he lost, his ideas and values will never be defeated in the consciousness of every being that aspires for liberation.
Defining moment in Oceania
At this time, being a colonial anthropologist, scientist, or missionary was critical because information generated by these foreign agents provided a framework for how Melanesia (black islands) or anyone divergent from the European hegemony would be conceived in the future.
The term Melanesia itself emerged out of such colonial enterprise, fuelled by white supremacy of dubious racial science. As ironic and tragic as it seems, Papuans in West Papua reclaimed the term and use it in their cultural war against what they consider Asian-Indonesian colonisation.
It is likely that Nikolai would have re-named and re-described this region differently if he had been the first to name it instead of French explorer Jules Dumont d’Urville (a man responsible for coining the term). He arrived too late, and the region had already been named, divided, and colonized.
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 “Mikloucho-Maclay – New Guinea Diaries 1871-1883.”
C.L. Sentinella, the translator of the diaries, wrote the following in the introduction part of the document:
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, PNG local paper The National published a short story of Mikloucho-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 papers reflect the spirit of the man.
After, over 150 years on, media headlines depicting him with such great messianic honour emphasise his legacy. One of his descendants, Nickolay Miklouho-Maclay, who is currently the director of Miklouho Maclay Foundation, has already begun to establish connections with local Papuans in PNG both at the village level and with the government to build connections based on the spirit of his ancestor.
Governor Enembe wants to reconnect with this great Russian story
Enembe believes that Nikolai’s writings and work profoundly influence the Russian psyche and reflect how the Russian people view the world – especially us the Melanesian people. This was what motivated him to arrange his meeting with the Russian ambassador on Monday. The Russians’ hospitality toward Papuan students is somehow 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 is linked to the eastern side of New Guinea, however Governor Enembe said Nikolai’s story is also our story now – because he fought for all oppressed and enslaved New Guineans, Melanesians, and Pacific islanders.
Nikolai’s ideas, beliefs and values – calling for the treatment of fellow human beings with dignity, equality and respect – are exactly what we need now, in a world extremely tortured and exploited by racism, prejudice and capitalism.
Mr. Enembe said that we need people like Nikolai, and it is partly because of this reason that he extended an invitation to President Putin to visit Papua.
Governor Enembe also said that he wants to build a cultural museum and statue in honour of Nikolai after further study of his work and ideas about our people and region.
“The old stories are dying, and we need new stories for our future,” Governor Enembe said. “I want to invite President Putin to Papua so that we can share more of this great story of the Russian people and New Guinea people together.”