Subject: NYT/Philip Bowring: The Passing of a Reformer

also Wahid's death buries Indonesian reform

The New York Times

January 5, 2009

The Passing of a Reformer


HONG KONG ó By conventional measures he was the least successful president Indonesia has had, bundled out of office in 2001 after 21 months. But Abdurrahman Wahid, who died last week at 69, has left a deep and positive imprint on his country and a liberal legacy that is an example to Muslim nations the world over.

Better known by his nickname, Gus Dur, Mr. Wahid was always something of a maverick so it was a surprise even to Indonesians when this half- blind religious leader and Islamic scholar was chosen as president by Parliament following the first free elections after the fall of President Suharto. His period in office was cut short by a combination of his inability to adjust his mercurial nature to the demands of the presidency, and Suharto-era elites who opposed his liberal approach to the problems of East Timor and Aceh, and his attempts to reform the armed forces.

But Mr. Wahid was the single most important figure not merely in Indonesiaís transition from Suhartoís centralized autocracy to a decentralized democracy but in ensuring that the new democracy was committed to religious and ethnic pluralism.

He ended discrimination against the Chinese and was unbending in his defense of the rights of non-Muslims, providing leadership by example at a time when some members of the Suharto-era military were trying to stir up communal hatreds by funding extremist Muslim groups. He also played a key role in lancing the East Timor boil and paving the way for eventual peace in Aceh.

President Sukarno gave Indonesia independence and a national language. Suharto gave it centralized administration and economic growth. Mr. Wahidís legacy was the importance of accepting diversity as the basis of unity for the sprawling archipelago.

It may be shocking to many Muslims accustomed to hearing fatwahs from self-important clerics and state religious officials that the leader of the largest Muslim organization in the worldís most populous predominantly Muslim nation believed in both democracy and the supremacy of private conscience over religious authority. Mr. Wahidís time at Al-Azhar University, Cairoís famous center of Islamic learning, had given him not just a deep knowledge of Islam but also insights into the dangers of rote learning and narrow-mindedness. His respect for liberal democracy was gained from living in the West, and from his early career as a journalist.

And he came from a Javanese Islamic tradition that was popular but un- dogmatic, incorporating some pre-Islamic elements. He rejoiced that Indonesia was a diverse nation with significant Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, even agnostic minorities, as well as huge variations in local social customs. He celebrated the fact that there were many different strands to Indonesian Islam, most of which were tolerant of the others and of non-Muslims. But he was also aware that this society was capable of nurturing pockets of extremism, such as those responsible for the Bali bombing. If today Indonesia has a cultural vivacity unique in Southeast Asia, it is partly a reflection of Mr. Wahidís plural attitudes and non-authoritarian instincts.

He provided intellectual backing for reconciling, at least to the satisfaction of the Nahdlatul Ulama, the nationís largest organization of Islamic clerics, Pancasila, the five principles of the Indonesian state, with Islamic jurisprudence. The Pancasila are vague but in practice emphasize the importance of the unity of the state and are a secular barrier against the imposition of laws based on one religion.

His status as leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama was inherited from his father and grandfather. But his popularity had much to do with his ability to communicate equally with the rural faithful and Jakarta elites, always informally, at ease cracking self-deprecating jokes or retailing gossip about the sexual proclivities of the Suharto clan.

Mr. Wahid was better as a catalytic agent then as a manager. His defiance of convention was his downfall. But his adherence to principles also left a positive legacy, a platform of pluralism and democracy his successors, notably President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, have inherited.

His later years were marred by physical infirmity that reduced his political effectiveness and prevented him from playing a significant role in international Islamic affairs.

Abdurrahman Wahidís passing reminds one of how badly the Islamic political world needs more people like him, and how badly many in the Arab and Iranian worlds need to learn from their more numerous Muslim brethren east of the Indus.


Asia Times Online

Wednesday, January 6, 2009

Wahid's death buries Indonesian reform

By Gary LaMoshi

DENPASAR, Bali - Praise poured in to honor Indonesia's fourth president, Abdurrahman Wahid, on his death last week at the age of 69. The richly deserved tributes recalled Wahid's wit, his leadership of the country's largest grassroots Muslim organization, and his commitment to pluralism.

There's even talk of declaring Wahid, affectionately known as Gus Dur, a national hero. His usually reticent successor and some-time rival, Megawati Sukarnoputri, said, "Gus Dur meets the requirements," and indicated that her political party, the Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P), had already endorsed his enshrinement.

But the plaudits ignore the dark side of Wahid's 21-month presidential term, which marked the nation's definitive break with Suharto's New Order authoritarianism. The national mourning for Wahid failed to examine what has become of the reformasi (reform) movement that brought Wahid to power, the backlash against his presidency, and why Wahid was the lone genuine reformer to occupy Merdeka Palace and remain prominent as a reformer on the political scene throughout the near dozen years since Suharto's fall in 1998.

Wahid's presidency set back the cause of reform, perhaps crippled it forever. Ironically, his term in office strengthened the hand of Islamic extremists and the military. It also set the stage for sectarian violence and terrorist attacks that killed thousands and threatened unity across the archipelago. Most important, Wahid's bungled presidency illustrated the potential cost of democracy to the old guard before it stripped their power to derail reform.

Born in East Java in 1940, Wahid was the first child in a prominent family of religious leaders and nationalists. His grandfather, Hasyim Asy'ari, founded Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), destined to grow into Indonesia's largest grassroots Muslim organization with 50 million members. Wahid was chosen as NU chairman in 1984, a post that gave him a power base and a public pulpit to advocate pluralism and personal choice in religion. NU took a liberal line on religious matters through its acceptance of mixing pre-Islamic traditions with Muslim practice. A 1998 stroke, brought on by diabetes, left Wahid nearly blind and dogged by health woes throughout his remaining years.

Wahid's NU post drew him into politics, even though he'd withdrawn NU from formal politics; like religion, politics was a matter of personal choice. In the early 1990s, Suharto tried to recruit Muslim leaders as allies, but Wahid was among those who resisted. That put him in conflict with Suharto's New Order and made him a leading dissident figure at a time when there wasn't much dissent. Wahid allied with Megawati; the daughter of Indonesia's first president, Sukarno, she headed one of the officially sanctioned opposition parties. Her popularity would make her a threat to Suharto and the focal point of the burgeoning reformasi movement that gained momentum as the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis hit Indonesia.

Killing unarmed protesters and deadly riots of murky origin forced Suharto to step down in May 1998. Wahid took a leadership role in the new National Awakening Park (known by its Indonesian acronym, PKB) and was nominated as its candidate for president in the 1999 election. Voters would choose 500 legislators, who, along with 200 regional and group representatives, would select the president.

These were heady times, with reformasi thick in the air as Indonesia held its first free general election since 1955. Predictably, Megawati's party won the largest number of votes in the election, 34% of the total, while Wahid's PKB finished third with 13%. Supporters of reform expected Megawati to become president. PKB backed Megawati against the incumbent, Suharto's vice president, BJ Habibie.

However, a coalition of Muslim parties, led by reform figure Amien Rais, emerged to block Megawati's selection. Amid fervent backroom dealing reminiscent of the Suharto era or mid-20th century Chicago, Wahid supported Rais to head the legislature and Rais' coalition backed Wahid for the presidency. In the vice presidential voting, Wahid prevailed on Suharto's military chief General Wiranto to withdraw, clearing the field for Megawati to get the executive consolation prize.

Reform's failure

Wahid took the presidency with a mandate for reform but failed to capitalize on it. His reform movement never articulated a coherent program for reform, nor set out a coordinated program for it. Some of that was the legacy of Suharto, who had effectively stunted political development for more than three decades. But some of the fault belongs with Wahid himself for failing to seize the moment and rally popular support for the cause. His death revealed a well of public goodwill that Wahid never managed to tap as president.

Wahid's presidency featured many admirable steps. He abolished Suharto's levers of political control, including the Ministry of Information. He lifted a number of measures that discriminated against the Chinese minority and declared Chinese New Year a national holiday. He began to fight the endemic corruption of the New Order by disbanding the Ministry of Welfare.

Armed with a keen intellect, acid tongue, and firmly convinced of his own righteousness, Wahid wasn't ideally suited for a political life of compromise. Even though he assembled a broad cabinet that included all factions, his forte was getting out in front and expecting others to follow, rather than building consensus and moving incrementally. That would cost Wahid dearly when he moved to reform the military.

Throughout the transition from Suharto's rule, the military under Wiranto had largely gone along with reform. Wiranto had prevented elements of the military, reportedly including Suharto's former son-in- law (and Megawati's 2009 running mate), Prabowo Subianto, from staging a coup as Suharto stepped down amid street protests. Wiranto also cooperated with separating the military and police, and supported disengaging the military from politics, earning him the mantle of reformer. The withdrawal from East Timor, which voted for independence in a 1999 referendum, was bloody and destructive, but it was accomplished without a mutiny within the bitterly opposed ranks of the armed forces.

Wahid appointed Wiranto as his Coordinating Minister of Politics and Security, the second most important role in the government. Yet there's little evidence that Wahid used Wiranto as a bridge to build support for change. Many in the military would be happy to see a genuine separation between politics and the armed forces, but it would be a separation running both ways - soldiers would stay out of politics, but politicians would stay out of military affairs, including alleged human rights abuses and the armed forces vast network of businesses, legal and otherwise. (That appears to be the current modus vivendi under incumbent president and former general Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.) But when Wahid began to attack corruption within the military's business empire and fired Wiranto after just three months on the job, the gloves came off.

The military moved to destabilize Wahid's government. It allegedly began stoking and arming sectarian violence in Ambon and central Sulawesi. The military also apparently supported coordinated church bombings on Christmas Eve 2000, and helped rehabilitate radical Islam that had been discredited under Suharto. Wahid's erratic governing style and lack of skill as an administrator left him with few political allies. Rather than deriding the legislature as a "kindergarten" and later a pre-school "play group", he could have advanced the notion of legislative accountability. His presidency was characterized by off-hand remarks and snap decisions that began to disillusion supporters of reform - a process Megawati completed as his successor with a thoroughly corrupt regime that harked back to the Suharto era.

The corruption charges against Wahid that led to his impeachment were trumped up, but the sentiment that his presidency had failed was real and unfortunate. Cornering the military dragon without the power to subdue it has let the armed forces continue to occupy an outsized role in Indonesian society. Failing to present a good government alternative to business as usual has doomed Indonesia to another generation of endemic corruption and the widespread poverty that goes with it.

Wahid was a fine man with a lifetime of lasting achievements, but with his passing it is important to remember that he was no hero to Indonesia's reformers.

Longtime editor of investor rights advocate, Gary LaMoshihas written for Slate and, and works a counselor for Writing Camp ( He first visited Indonesia in 1994 and has tracking its progress ever since

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