BRISBANE - Russian president Vladimir Putin has been invited by Papuan governor Lukas Enembe to visit the Indonesian province later this year.
The invitation was extended when Enembe met Russian Ambassador to Indonesia, Lyudmila Vorobyeva, last week and has triggered heated debate in social media.
Speculation is also rife about whether Indonesia — as chair of the G20 group of nations — will invite President Putin to attend the global forum in Bali later this year.
Enembe is not just any governor in Indonesia — Papua is one of the biggest settler-colonised provinces globally that is seeking independence.
Whether Putin would want to visit Papua is unknown, but Enembe’s invitation has left Indonesians and Papuans confused and wondering about the governor’s motives.
His spokesperson, Muhammad Rifai, said Enembe had expressed deep gratitude to the Russian government for providing a sense of security to Indigenous Papuan students studying in Russia.
He thanked the Russian ambassador for taking good care of scholars who since 2016 have received annual scholarships through the Russian Centre for Science and Culture.
Enembe first sent 26 Indigenous Papuans to study in Russia in 2019 Russian Federation on September 27, 2019 and last year Russia offered another 163 places to Papuan undergraduate and postgraduate students.
Enembe stated education is a foundation for the land of Papua to grow and move forward and said Russia is the only country willing to offer students a free scholarship covering their tuition fees.
Rifai also said the governor wanted to talk about the construction of a spaceport on Biak Island off the north-west coast of Papua.
As part of the initiative, the governor has invited Victoria from the Russian Centre for Science and Culture to visit Papua to inaugurate a Russian Cultural Centre at a local university.
Some see Enembe’s desire to establish a relationship with Russia inspired by the story of Russian anthropologist Nikolai Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay (1846–88) who he said had tried to save the New Guinean people during one of the darkest periods of European savagery in the Pacific.
Miklouho-Maclay fought to defend indigenous New Guineans against German, Dutch, British and Australian colonists in New Guinea.
The anthropologist took risks in proclaiming equality between different races and standing in opposition to the dominant worldview of the time.
It was a hegemony so destructive it set the stage for future exploitation of islanders and West Papua still bleeds as a result, he said.
Maclay’s campaign against the ‘Australian slavery’ known as blackbirding was driven by a spirit of human equality.
The term ‘Melanesia’ emerged out of such colonial enterprise, fuelled by white supremacy.
It is ironic that Papuans in West Papua use the term in their cultural war against Asian-Indonesian colonisation.
Maclay landed at Garagassi Point in what is now Madang Province in September 1871 and built a strong relationship with the local people.
His anthropological work and his diaries became well known in Russia and have more recently been translated into English as the ‘New Guinea Diaries 1871-1883’.
The translator of the diaries, CL Sentinella, wrote 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, PNG newspaper, The National, published a short story of Maclay under the title, ‘A Russian who fought to save Indigenous New Guinea’.
Then in 2020, The Guardian, shared a brief story of him under title, ‘The dashing Russian adventurer who fought to save indigenous lives’.
After more than 150 years, these titles reflect the spirit and emphasise the legacy of Maclay.
One of his descendants, Nickolay Miklouho-Maclay, current director of the Miklouho Maclay Foundation in Madang, has begun to establish connections with local people.
Governor Enembe believes Nikolai Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay’s writings profoundly influenced the Russian psyche and reflect how the Russian people view Melanesians.
This was what motivated him to arrange his meeting with Russian ambassador Lyudmila Vorobyeva.
The governor believes Russian hospitality towards Papuan students is connected to the spirit of Maclay’s compassion, understanding and brotherhood.
While Maclay’s story is linked to the PNG side of New Guinea, Enembe said Nikolai’s it is now also the story of West Papuans because Maclay fought for all oppressed and enslaved New Guineans, Melanesians and Pacific islanders.
So Governor Enembe has invited President Putin to visit Papua and he plans to build a cultural museum and statue in honour of Nikolai Nikolaevich Miklouho-Maclay.
“The old stories are dying, and we need new stories for our future,” Enembe said.
“I want to share more of this great story of the Russian people and New Guinea people together.”
Yamin Kogoya, a West Papuan academic and anthropologist, is from the Lani tribe of the Papuan Highlands