Kornelius Purba ,  The Jakarta Post ,  Jakarta   |  Thu, 12/31/2009
8:35 AM  |  Headlines

A Jewish friend from Jerusalem sent me a message shortly after former
president Abdurrahman “Gus Dur” Wahid  passed away on Wednesday

“Deepest condolences at the passing of Gus Dur, a true Indonesian
patriot and a great friend. May the people of Indonesia be spared
anymore sorrow. With sadness,” former diplomat Emanuel Shahaf wrote in
a cell phone message.

The practically blind Gus Dur is probably the most popular Indonesian
leader in Israel because shortly after becoming the country’s fourth
president in October 1999, he openly said that commercial ties with
Israel was one of his top foreign policy initiatives. Gus Dur, who
likes jokes, also served with the Jerusalem-based Simon Peres Peace
Institute before becoming president.

As a journalist, I had several touching and funny experiences with Gus
Dur, both as the chairman of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU) and the country’s
fourth president. He is likely to be the only Indonesian president and
leader who had the courage to apologize to the people of Timor Leste
in March 2000 for their sufferings under Indonesia’s colonial rule.

After visiting the Santa Cruz Cemetery and the Heroes Cemetery in
Dili, he said “sorry” to the East Timorese victims. He also apologized
to the hundreds of thousands of victims and their relatives of the
now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) who were murdered
following their abortive alleged coup attempt in 1965. Many historians
doubted Soeharto’s version of the coup, but until now Soeharto’s
version of the tragedy is still used in the history textbooks.

Gus Dur, who loved to make controversial and contradictory statements,
is probably also the most respected president of the country’s six
presidents among minority groups, including the Indonesian Chinese and
Christians. In one visit in Padang, West Sumatra, he strongly
criticized Muslims who complained that many churches in Indonesia were
built without official permits.

“But how many mosques in this country have official permits?”

I remembered him asking nine years ago.

In a meeting with then Chinese president Jiang Zemin, Gus Dur
reiterated his assurance the government would end any discriminatory
treatment against Indonesians of Chinese origin. President Jiang
raised concern over the May 1998 riots — several days before the fall
of president Soeharto — where hundreds of Chinese women were raped,
harassed and even killed.

In November 1999, I covered his visit to the US, including a visit to
Moran Eye Center in Salt Lake City. He told me he was optimistic that
he would see again even though he was practically blind. I did not
dare to tell him that I had the opposite view. But after that he also
made a joke about his meeting with then US president Bill Clinton at
the Oval Office, where Clinton reportedly had oral sex with Monica
Lewinsky. He also laughed when he repeated how then Japanese prime
minister Keizo Obuchi pronounced election (Japanese pronounce l as r)
when congratulating Gus Dur in Tokyo
in 1999.

We felt saddened every time Gus Dur and his paralyzed wife left the
plane during his overseas trip (if not mistaken he visited more than
30 countries during his short presidential period and I covered most
of them). Both of them should have been in wheelchairs. His wife was
paralyzed in a car accident at the Jagorawi turnpike in 1993. Many NU
members still believe the accident was orchestrated by the military to
kill her husband because Gus Dur was originally scheduled to be in the
same car as his wife.

Soeharto was reportedly often angry with Gus Dur because of his blunt criticism.

His position as the chairman of the country’s largest Muslim
organization, NU, which was founded by his paternal grandfather Hasyim
Asyari, from 1989 to 1999 gave him a strong position to face
Soeharto’s iron-fist rule.

The former president and NU chairman, will be remembered for his
controversial remarks. Over the last few years, many Indonesians have
stopped paying serious attention to his comments.

But Gus Dur is likely to be among very few Indonesians — if any — who
dared to continuously criticize Soeharto’s iron-fist rule, and at the
same still maintain cordial personal relations with the country’s
second president.

In December 1994, Soeharto openly tried all possible ways — including
intimidation and slander — to block the re-election of Gus Dur as NU
chairman, but to no avail. Gus Dur openly told journalists that
Soeharto did not like him. But he easily won the NU chairmanship race.

While serving as president from October 1999 till July 2001, he often
sacked his ministers, including Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and former
vice president Jusuf Kalla. His decision to sack Gen. Wiranto as his
chief security minister in February 2000 effectively proved his
commitment to civilian supremacy.

It was hard to imagine at the time that he could so easily fire a very
powerful Army general.

He lost his position to his vice president Megawati Soekarnoputri in
July 2001, mainly because of his confrontational approach.

But this nation, especially political elites such as Amien Rais, were
responsible for the country’s historic decision to elect a blind man,
who had also suffered several strokes, as president just because they
did not want Megawati to be president. It is not my intention to
offend the disabled — my own wife became disabled after backbone
surgery in 2000.

Over the last few years people have ignored Gus Dur’s public remarks.
But history will remember him as the guru of the nation, one that
tirelessly campaigned for pluralism, inclusivity and democracy.


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