Gus Dur, whom I knew as a visionary pluralist and humorist

Kornelius Purba

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

"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.

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