Thursday, December 31, 2009

Indonesia farewells its boldest president Abdurrahman Wahid

INDONESIA's fourth president, Abdurrahman Wahid, was one of the boldest and most eccentric leaders the Asia-Pacific region has seen - and one of the most supportive of Australia.

He died on Wednesday after finally succumbing to his many longstanding illnesses, including kidney failure and diabetes, and was buried yesterday in his family's graveyard in Jombang, East Java, which was surrounded by 10,000 praying followers.

The memorial service was presided over by President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who ordered a week of national mourning for the mystical, whimsical one-eyed cleric.

Wahid - more widely known as Gus Dur - became Indonesia's president after the first national elections following the ousting of strongman Soeharto in 1998.

His power base, Nahdlatul Ulama, is one of Indonesia's two mass Islamic movements, whose moderation has been crucial in combating attempts to hijack the world's most populous Islamic nation in an extremist direction.

Since then, presidents have been elected directly and not via parliamentary votes.

He lasted only two years in the presidency before parliament, which had taken a punt on him in the first place, sacked him amid unproven allegations of corruption and incompetence.

That short term in office, however, saw key policies endorsed and initiated. He followed through predecessor B.J. Habibie's extraordinarily radical plan for devolving power - not so much to the 27 provinces, but further down, to the country's 360 kabupaten or regencies. He strengthened the crackdown on Islamist violence, encouraged dialogue with separatists in Aceh and West Papua, and urged the establishment of diplomatic relations with Israel.

He did not succeed in the latter. But Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, said: "We have lost a true friend and a warrior for peace and mutual respect."

He visited East Timor after it became a new nation, apologising for human rights abuses committed by Indonesian forces during the 24-year occupation.

He was an ardent supporter of inter-faith dialogue, whom NU vice-president Maskuri Abdillah said would be remembered above all as a "pluralist". But his eccentricity, including his tendency to doze off during important meetings, disqualified him from the leadership of a rapidly modernising nation of the size of Indonesia. When predictability, calmness and inclusiveness were required, he had been at times capricious and prickly.

He was never able to provide ASEAN with the leadership it needed, and which it had formerly expected of Indonesia, where it is headquartered.

He liked Australia, and visited a number of times when he was a refreshingly frank figure. He sought to engage Australia in a West Pacific Forum, a concept Canberra embraced but which has since faded away. Viewers of ABC TV were rivetted, in the latter days of Gus - "Uncle" - Dur, by an extraordinarily intimate profile of him filmed by his friend Curtis Levy.

In that program, Dur walked endlessly around the palace gardens, propped up by aides. He was the first person to live there since Indonesia's almost equally odd founding father, Sukarno.

When he was elected by parliament despite his party gaining only 11 per cent of the vote, he had Suharto's art works replaced with the Sukarno collection, including his library. But not his music. His study table was typically littered with CDs ranging from Kenny Rogers to Janis Joplin and Beethoven.

The Australian

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