Monday, January 4, 2010

RIP Abdurrahman Wahid

Indonesia has this week mourned the death of Abdurrahman Wahid, the country's 4th president. He died aged 69 after suffering poor health related to diabetes and kidney and heart problems. Wahid (known colloquially as "Gus Dur") ruled the country for less than 2 years, was known for eccentricity and unpredictability, and was eventually deposed amid allegations of corruption, yet his tenure was extremely significant, and will probably be judged more kindly by history than he was at the time.

The nearly blind Muslim intellectual former journalist was an unexpected and almost accidental choice for Indonesia's leader in 1999.  His party had not won the legislative elections, but he was elected as President by the People's Consultative Assembly by a coalition of parties, ahead of favourite Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Despite his leadership of Indonesia's largest Muslim organisation (Nahdlatul Ulama), Wahid was a moderate whose interfaith tolerance was notable. He re-opened commercial negotiations with Israel, and was well-respected by the country's Chinese minority for lifting bans on Chinese characters in public, and recognising Chinese New Year as an optional holiday.

In many ways Wahid exemplified the poisoned chalice of leadership in a Third World nation riven by corruption and transitioning towards democratic rule. Indonesia's military had been the major political force in the 3 decades of Suharto's New Order regime, and had expected to continue this arrangement in some way or another - particularly under Wahid, seen as a President without strong backing who would have to do deals to maintain power. Wahid however showed the military, and Suharto's Golkar party who still held great power, that he would not play their game. He dismissed General Wiranto (implicated in war crimes in East Timor) and Trade Minister Jusuf Kalla (alleging corruption). He apologised to the East Timorese people for the injustices perpetrated on them by the Indonesian military, and made moves towards conciliation and greater autonomy for the Acehnese and West Papuans. Such rejection of the old order, and daring to question Indonesia's sovereignty of its separatist provinces, may have been the righteous thing to do in order to take the country towards a better future, but it earned Wahid a lot of ill-will from the established powers which surely contributed to his ultimate downfall.

The corruption allegations (for misappropriating funds) that would further weaken his position were never really proven. It should however be noted that it would be highly unlikely for anyone to make it big in the murky world of Indonesian politics without having a hand in some improper dealings along the way. Which also means that the politicians most active in calling for Wahid's removal from power were far from pure themselves. Post-Suharto, Indonesians desperately want a government that is free of that era's taint of corruption, yet there are very few candidates without some kind of dirt on their hands. Current president Susilo Bambang Yudhyono, who inherited the mantle after Megawati, is seen as a man of principle who can take the country where it needs to go. Yet he owes a debt of gratitude to Wahid, who laid the foundations for a new era even though it spelled his own doom.

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