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In Memoriam- President Gus Dur, 1940-2009
By John M. Gorrindo
Indonesian Correspondent
Abdurrahman Wahid, born Abdurrahman Addakhil (Sept. 7, 1940 – Dec. 30, 2009), colloquially known as Gus Dur, was an Indonesian Muslim religious and political leader who served as the President of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001. The long-time president of the Nahdlatul Ulama and the founder of the National Awakening Party (PKB), Wahid was the first elected president of Indonesia after the resignation of Suharto in 1998.

Serious students of democratic movements are often forced to quickly shed any vestige of idealism that may have initially inspired their interest in the subject, as the unfair advantages held by the few too often trump the higher ideals of the many as vested in the higher aims of the democratic creed.

Activists from outside the political establishment such as Martin Luther King or the American and British suffragettes often serve as the grand marshals of reform, acting as more effective conduits of populist will. Seemingly impossible impediments always created great hardship for their causes, but it must be said that they often had the luxury of not having to balance an unruly assemblage of competing interests to which presidents and legislators must always answer by default.

But even the most hardboiled of informed skeptics must admit that some elected officials do manage to crack the glass ceiling that impedes the march of democratic values in favor of selfish interests. Most every democracy has their exemplar, and in the case of Indonesia, that grand figure is Abdurrahman Wahid, more affectionately known as Gus Dur.

His passing in the final week of the 2009 comes at the beginning of Indonesia’s second decade as a democratic state. As Indonesia’s first winner of a contested presidential election just one year after the fall of President Suharto, Gus Dur embodied the aspirations of a nation both yearning and ready for political freedom. After hundreds of years of feudalism, colonial oppression and dictatorial rule, Indonesia had managed to seize the moment after Suharto’s demise and put into office a man who believed in and championed religious tolerance, fairness, pluralism, and human rights.

Wahid was less effective as a survivalist politician. Within two years time he was impeached from office by the Indonesian parliament. Given the turbulence of the times, violent shifts of political fortune were to be the norm and his quick rise and fall was to repeat itself. His successor, the popular daughter of founding father President Sukarno, Megawati Sukarnoputri, suffered the same fate. Indonesia’s fragility while passing through the gates toward becoming a fledgling democracy was bound to create martyrs. Gus Dur best summed up the immediate post-Suharto era: “After becoming president, it became apparent that before me there was nothing but jagged debris, the ruined wreck of the former administration — an enormous foreign debt, an economy in disorder, social injustices, conflagrations and accusations springing up everywhere.”

Though accused of incompetence and corruption by the political insiders whose elite power grab stripped Wahid of his presidency in 2001, they were unable to diminish the deep well of public respect Wahid carried with him out of office. Love for Wahid remained until his death and he remained an influential figure in and out of politics.

In the mourning over his death on December 30th, the unfiltered public verdict came rushing into print across not only Indonesian news organizations but in the international press as well: Gus Dur was being memorialized as no less than Indonesia’s father of pluralistic democracy. The reason for this is spelled out plainly in Wahid’s biography both inside and outside of Indonesia. His love and respect for the great faiths of the world was equal to that of his own beloved Islam. He was an intellectual ulama in the grand old tradition of Islam, turning as a young man of religion to traditional travel outside the country of his birthplace- long known as a rantau- in order to forge his beliefs in the deeper soils of international understanding. His formal and informal studies in the universities and coffee shops of Cairo and Baghdad provided the young Wahid with a world view that included a deep respect for all major religions. It is no surprise that a significant contingent of Buddhist monks and Christian leaders attended his funeral procession in his home town of Jombang in East Java.

As heir-apparent to a long line of Islamic ulamas and former longtime leader of Indonesia’s largest Muslim organization, the NU (Nahdlatul Ulama), Wahid became a cleric-cum-president in a time of fomenting almost world wide Islamic revolution. But for all those who both feared or hoped the Indonesian ulama would steer Indonesia towards a theocratic state, their anticipations were soon answered. He consistently preached in favor of an Indonesian secular democracy as opposed to an Islamic state. To the abhorrence and surprise of many, he squarely declared Islam to be a religion founded in democratic values. In so doing he championed the religious rights of minority groups and was a strong proponent of universal human rights. Before becoming president he took the unpopular position of defending the free speech rights of author Salman Rushdie after the fatwa issued by Iran’s Khomeini, and as both the leader of a major Islamic organization and citizen of a nation that doesn’t recognize Israel, defended Judaism against discriminatory Muslim attitudes. Gus Dur was even awarded a place in 1997 on the Board of Governors of the Shimon Peres Peace by the Israeli government for this work in inter-faith dialogue and was invited to Israel to sign a peace charter.

There is no contemporary Indonesian in or outside of religion or politics that can measure up to Wahid’s enlightened thought and commitment to peace. He towers above the rest like the capstone turned cosmic eye detached yet hovering directly above the Grand Pyramid of Giza as depicted in Free Masonry- a man of unique inner vision powered by the strength of love for all mankind.

As president he was roundly criticized for his inability to deal with the shambles of the Indonesian economy he inherited, but at a time when political freedom was taking its first baby steps in Indonesia he pursued causes much more important to giving democracy some legs. This included freeing Chinese Indonesians from the harsh discriminations put into law and practice by Suharto, making peace overtures to Aceh at the height of separatist violence in the province, seeking a peaceful solution to secession troubles in West Papua, and traveling to Timor in order to apologize and make reparations for the terrible war of atrocities the Indonesian government and military had rained down upon the tiny island for a quarter century.

In reality, any given president of a democratic republic has but a short time to put forth an agenda, and must choose that agenda according to a keen sense of priorities. Success is measured in a president’s ability to accomplish only a handful of objectives, and history should judge Abdurrahman Wahid’s presidency as an unqualified success given what Indonesia needed most in those tenuous first years after the fall of totalitarian rule. Wahid let the genie out of the democratic bottle, and given the recent trends, there seems to be no putting it back. The great news stories coming out of Indonesia in 2009 all confirm that. The resilience of the Commission on Corruption in the face of prosecutorial attacks as perpetrated by the National Police leadership is perhaps the most profound, while most heartening is this week’s release of the jailed Indonesian house wife who had been locked away for making public her complaints concerning poor medical treatment in a Jakarta hospital. Freedom of speech is on the rise in Indonesia, and the younger generation has shown quick and massive support for all those democratic values that are just taking root in the world’s third largest democracy.

The Suharto era is not officially over, though he is dead and gone. His hand picked cronies, advisors and appointees still serving inside of the military, police, and political institutions of Indonesia retain great power, but their time is drawing nigh. A new generation is quickly on the rise- better educated, communicating freely through the internet, and politically involved. Given democracy is only a decade old in Indonesia, the current wave of reform sweeping across the political landscape is making rapid gains. Corruption, inadequate distribution of wealth, religious oppression and intractable territorial problems such as that of West Papua remain glaring deficiencies in the greater picture of Indonesian progress, but they are not challenges that are being swept under the rug by the Indonesian people themselves. They are vocal and relentless in their pursuit of redressing many of these inequities.

Those who care about Indonesia’s future are both worried by how much remains to be done, but are hopeful as well. And the great beacon of freedom’s values, Gus Dur, remains a father to their aspirations and to the establishment of democracy itself in the world’s greatest archipelago. Through Gus Dur’s good work and biographical example we see the emergence of the New Indonesian who is working for a new Indonesia. Hope resides with the Indonesian people much more than with its present government. Given the tide of political events, that is very good news in all actuality. Eventually, the government will have to answer to the call, establish a stronger rule of law, and begin to right the many wrongs that have plagued Indonesia since long before its conception as a national state.

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Mr. John M. Gorrindo, who serves as an Indonesian correspondent for The Seoul Times, is a native-born Californian. As holder of a MA degree in music composition from the University of California, he made Manado, North Sulawesi, Indonesia his home after serving as a volunteer English teacher there. He also a writes fictions and composes music. Some of his writings and music can be found at Fringing reefs and Vertical Walls:






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