Friday, June 17, 2011

Indonesia's week of mourning for Gus Dur

Different ... Gus Dur, nearly blind and so casual at a critical moment, will be buried in his hometown of Jombang.

Different ... Gus Dur, nearly blind and so casual at a critical moment, will be buried in his hometown of Jombang. Photo: Reuters, AP

Abdurrahman Wahid steered Indonesia towards a democratic culture, recalls Lindsay Murdoch.

IT WAS a bizarre moment in Indonesia's history.

More than 100 army tanks had surrounded the presidential palace where the embattled president, Abdurrahman Wahid, was attempting to declare a state of emergency and suspend parliament, ignoring the fact that MPs had already voted to oust him from office.

As tensions rose on that steamy July night in 2001, Mr Wahid suddenly appeared under the arches on the palace's front balcony wearing shorts and sandals. He waved to a small crowd of supporters before aides persuaded him to return inside.

Jakarta's conservative political elite were shocked: never had they expected an Islamic figure, let alone a president, to be so under-dressed in public.

Mr Wahid died on Wednesday night in a Jakarta hospital from complications of heart and kidney disorders after a long illness. He was 69.

The Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, has declared a week of mourning and was to preside at a state funeral yesterday for Mr Wahid, who was fondly known as Gus Dur.

Mr Wahid, Indonesia's first democratically elected president, generated many controversies and stories in post-Soeharto Indonesia as cabinet ministers and presidential staff came and went and the government reeled from one crisis to another.

Taking office as Indonesia appeared to be on the brink of chaos, the nearly blind Mr Wahid, who had already suffered two strokes, pursued a punishing schedule of meetings across Indonesian and on frequent overseas trips.

He struggled to wind back the military's role in politics and to decentralise power to Indonesia's far flung provinces, including Irian Jaya, which he renamed Papua.

In one of his first interviews as president, Mr Wahid at times seemed unable to go on, as if he was too weary to speak. But as the Herald began to suspect he had fallen asleep behind the wooden table where he spent most of his days while in Jakarta, he suddenly appeared to awaken and answered questions with sharpness and good humour.

His term ended with his impeachment for alleged corruption for misappropriation of state funds, but he was never tried on criminal charges.

Mr Wahid claimed his impeachment was politically motivated by Soeharto-era figures who wanted to return to power.

While he was seen by many people as egotistical and self-absorbed, those close to him saw a generous and witty man who enjoyed being irreverent about Islamic traditions, even though he led Nahdlatul Ulama, a rural-based Islamic organisation with 40 million members.

He spoke out on behalf of the oppressed, including the country's Chinese and Christian minorities.

He went to East Timor to apologise for Indonesia's past crimes there.

Mr Wahid was a long-time supporter of Australia despite what he regarded as the Howard government's meddling role in East Timor gaining its independence.

In recent years he founded the Wahid Institute, which promotes moderate Islam and is headed by Yenni Wahid, one of three daughters and a former Herald journalist.

Ms Wahid, who won a Walkley Award in 1999 for her role in covering East Timor's vote for independence, collapsed after his death and left the hospital in a wheelchair, Jakarta media reported. Despite ill health, one of Mr Wahid's last public engagements was to see Yenni marry an influential political figure in October.

Wrapped in green, the traditional colour of Islam, Mr Wahid's body was flown yesterday to Jombang, his hometown in East Java, for the state funeral.

Lindsay Murdoch was the Herald correspondent in Jakarta when Abdurrahman Wahid ruled Indonesia.