Subject: Guardian Obituary: Abdurrahman Wahid: RI president known as a defender of human rights [+Bangkok Post Editorial]

also: Bangkok Post: Editorial - Fine example for the region

The Guardian [UK] January 4, 2010

Obituary: Abdurrahman Wahid: Indonesian president known as a defender of human rights

Tom Fawthrop

The former Indonesian president Abdurrahman Wahid, who has died aged 69 during surgery to remove a blood clot in his heart, restored freedom and democratic rights to his country after 32 years of the Suharto dictatorship. A reformist Muslim scholar, in the world's most populous Muslim nation, Wahid was an important figure both among religious groups and political movements in espousing a liberal Islam and promoted inter-faith dialogue.

As president of Indonesia from 1999 to 2001, the partially blind cleric, known as "Gus Dur", staunchly defended human rights, ethnic minorities and Indonesia's secular tradition. At his funeral, the current Indonesian president, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, praised him as the "father of multiculturalism and pluralism" who "raised awareness and institutionalised our respect for the diversity of ideas and identity, of religions, ethnicity and primordial ties". Few countries have enjoyed a more cultured man at the helm of state - a journalist, scholar and enlightened cleric, he took great delight in jazz and classical music and had a special passion for Beethoven. His wit was almost equal to his erudition. Upon losing the presidency in 2001, he quipped: "You don't realise that losing the presidency for me is nothing. I regret more the fact that I lost 27 recordings of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony."

Wahid was born in the small town of Jombang, East Java. His father, Wahid Hasyim, was an independence hero in the struggle against the Dutch who was appointed religious affairs minister in 1949. Wahid studied at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt, from 1964 to 1966. Later he went to the school of literature at Baghdad University and graduated in 1970. Returning home, he joined the Institute of Research, Education and Information of Social and Economic Affairs, and became a journalist and social commentator.

In 1984 he was elected chairman of the 30-million-member Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), a conservative Muslim organisation which had been founded by his grandfather, Hasyim Ashari. His great influence on the nation sprang from his success in reforming the NU and his critical role in mobilising his people behind the "Reformasi" movement, eventually leading to the downfall of Suharto. The new National Assembly elected Wahid president on 20 October 1999; he narrowly beat Megawati Sukarnoputri.

Wahid inherited a country with a struggling economy and many other problems. He revoked many of Suharto's repressive laws and ushered in an era of greater press freedom. He visited the Sumatran province of Aceh, negotiating with the Free Aceh Movement (GAM). He apologised for Indonesian atrocities in East Timor, supporting the United Nations' call for a trial of the military officers responsible. Defying military advice, he accepted the renaming of Irian Jaya to West Papua, demanded by the indigenous Free Papua Movement (OPM), losing him considerable public support.

In his struggle to assert civilian control over the military, he successfully dismissed the powerful security minister, General Wiranto, cited by the UN as responsible for crimes against humanity committed in East Timor in 1999 under his command.

Wahid achieved all this despite poor health; he suffered a serious stroke in 1998. He was a colourful, oddly eccentric president, who was given to unpredictable cabinet reshuffles and alliances. His frequently chaotic administration ended under a cloud of corruption allegations and impeachment in July 2001, reportedly engineered by powerful Suharto supporters.

Whatever his political failings, he had few equals in setting an example of courageous leadership based on moral principle. He lifted the Suharto regime's bans on all forms of Chinese culture and the ban on Marxism and Leninism. He also came to the defence of Salman Rushdie for his controversial 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Dealing with certain perceptions of the Muslim religion, Wahid declared: "Democracy is not only not haram [forbidden] in Islam, but is a compulsory element of Islam. Upholding democracy is one of the principles of Islam."

Countering his many critics, Wahid responded: "Those who say that I am not Islamic enough should reread their Qur'an. Islam is about inclusion, tolerance, and community." His legacy of a human rights- based Islam is critical to Indonesia and the world at a time of dire challenge from religious bigotry and narrow-minded fundamentalism.

One of his daughters, Zannuba Arifah Chafsoh (popularly known as Yenny Wahid), his longtime aide, is now the director of a thinktank devoted to his ideals, the Wahid Institute. She survives him, as do his wife, Sinta Nuriyah, and three other daughters.

Tom Fawthrop

Abdurrahman ad-Dakhil Wahid, politician and religious leader, born 7 September 1940; died 30 December 2009


Bangkok Post Monday, December 4, 2009

Editorial - Fine example for the region

One of the world's most admirable leaders died last week. It is lamentable that the name of Abdurrahman Wahid is less known than the villains and tyrants he fought and overcame. The former president of Indonesia was the major reason his country emerged from brutality and chaos to become the best example of democratic advances in Southeast Asia today. Known both affectionately and respectfully as Gus Dur, Wahid has left a legacy that will be difficult to live up to, but highly deserving of the effort.

Gus Dur _ a Muslim honorific combined with the nickname of his own first name _ was just 69 when he died after a long series of illnesses. The man of modest means suffered for decades from diabetes, and was functionally blind when he defeated the well-connected, fabulously rich Megawati Sukarnoputri in the first Indonesian presidential election in history, in 1999. His popular appeal was as simple as his campaign platform. Indonesia needed to get over the violence and systemic corruption of the Suharto years and move towards full democracy with a pluralistic government.

Many believed that the Indonesian army would never cede its power. Indeed, for several years after the overthrow of Suharto in ''people power'' demonstrations centred on Jakarta, it was assumed the army would simply retake control. Wahid, however, understood the concerns of the huge and widespread nation. The disgusting corruption and brutality of Suharto and supporters had been imposed at gunpoint. Wahid struck the correct chord in stressing religious freedom, accountable government and a goal of full democracy.

Wahid himself had seen and suffered the brutality of the Sukarno and then the Suharto dictatorships. But after the overthrow of Suharto, he refused to join the hotheaded calls for revenge. Instead, he counselled a policy to look to the future, and to build a democratic and tolerant country. This was a difficult role to play. On one side, the army constantly threatened violence to return to office. On the other, bigoted Muslim extremists, no longer checked or controlled by the government's threats, undertook major terrorist operations, in Jakarta and across the country.

History will probably record that Wahid's greatest achievement was to face down extremists on both sides, but particularly within the Muslim community. He insisted that the two great Muslim ''schools'' of Indonesia _ his own Nahdlatul Ulama, with 40 million members, and the 29 million-member Muhammjadiyah _ retain moderate and inclusive goals. He spoke out against extremism, including against the Jemaah Islamiyah group which, prior to the 9/11 attacks on the US and its Bali bombings, was attacking Christians and non-Islamic targets with murderous bombs across Indonesia.

Wahid's world travels, always with an entourage and often colourful, emphasised his belief that men and women, and their nations, should receive equal treatment. His frequent request to Indonesians and to world leaders was that ''Upholding democracy is one of the principles of Islam''. He made enemies among extremist groups with such talk. But largely as a result of his personality, the world's most populous Muslim country did, indeed, become a democracy and help to lead the worldwide battle against murderous extremists at the same time.

Wahid's presidency came to an abrupt end in 2001, and many blame a conspiracy of the elite. If so, they failed anyway. Indonesia today is Asean's strongest example of the advantages of democracy. It also is arguably the Islamic world's strongest proof that democracy is good for Islam in many ways. Wahid showed Muslims will fight the extremists, and that is his strongest legacy.

Back to January 2010 Menu
World Leaders Contact List
Main Postings Menu