Thursday, December 31, 2009


ABDURRAHMAN Wahid, 69, loved and known by millions of Indonesians as Gus Dur, was a brilliant, eccentric, humorous, humane Muslim cleric and former president who had taught his people the importance of tolerance in a multi-ethnic and religious society.
He was a courageous, outspoken critic during the late president Suharto's 32-year autocratic rule.

And the courage to speak up for what he believed to be the truth never wavered, even if it meant going against the tide.

Gus Dur was the one Indonesian leader who spoke up loudly for Malaysia whenever anti-Malaysian sentiment was stoked.

In 2007, when tension was high and hundreds of people demonstrated outside the Malaysian embassy in Jakarta over the alleged beating of an Indonesian karate referee by Malaysian cops, Gus Dur told the people not to jump to conclusions.

"Malaysian cops do not simply go around bashing up people," Gus Dur said.

Not once did Gus Dur jump on the anti-Malaysia bandwagon, like so many politicians and public figures in his midst, to gain sympathy or votes.

One of the most sensitive issues involved the unresolved sovereignty claims over Ambalat by Malaysia and Indonesia. In recent years, the Ambalat issue was raised over and over again, triggering much public anger and raising tension between the two countries.

Gus Dur publicly called for dialogue each time the issue was raised and told the government that claims on Ambalat must be resolved through dialogue and not by military means, as demanded by ultra-nationalist elements in the country.

Gus Dur was born into a family of ulama in Jombang, East Java, on Sept 7, 1940. His grandfather, Hasyim Ansya'ri, founded the country's largest Muslim organisation Nahdlatul Ulama (NU).

NU claims to have 40 million followers.

In 1984, Gus Dur was elected to head NU, a position he held for 15 years before stepping down to assume the presidency in 1999.

As the chairman of NU, Gus Dur turned the organisation into a moderate, liberal, inclusive organisation, teaching his followers to embrace people of different races and religion as one.

And millions of people listened, for his followers knew Gus Dur was the real thing -- despite his periodic controversial statements, which confused some, and his visionary wisdom which was often beyond the comprehension of most.

Etched forever in their minds was a man who despite being left virtually blind by a stroke and confined to a wheelchair, continued to zigzag throughout rural Indonesia to listen to the people and to comfort them with his concern and patience.

Neither physical disability nor high office was ever allowed to be an obstacle to his interaction with the people.

While president, Gus Dur continued to descend into the countryside with vibrant energy, visiting several districts or even provinces in a day, leaving his fit and burly presidential guards exhausted.

He was the first Indonesian president to open the gates of the presidential palace to ordinary people for Hari Raya, and they descended by the thousands to greet him in their sarongs and sandals.

His presidency only lasted two years, from 1999 to 2001, torn apart by intense political rivalry and a broken economy devastated by the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

Gus Dur's disorganised style of administration, combined with his frequently controversial public statements, earned the ire of the political elite who later conspired to vote him out of office in July 2001.

Brief and flawed, Gus Dur's presidency nevertheless laid the foundation for democracy in the country.

He dissolved the Ministry of Information, which was used to control the press during Suharto's time, paving the way for a free press.

He restored the rights of ethnic Chinese by lifting a 32-year-old ban on displaying Chinese characters and culture.

He also started the process to declare Chinese New Year as a public holiday.

He was the only Indonesian president to apologise to the people of East Timor (Timor Leste) for the atrocities inflicted during Suharto's rule.

The Jakarta Post calls him the president who was "closest to the people" and who had left behind a legacy which would outlast presidents who served much longer than him.

Gus Dur was close to the people because he kept his heart close to them and had never forgotten the true meaning of leadership -- to serve, to educate and to sacrifice.

Indonesia and the world lost a great teacher on Wednesday

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