On January 2, 2010, one million candles were lit in cities throughout Indonesia in honor of Abdurrahman Wahid, the former Indonesian President who died three days earlier[1]. As a tribute, Indonesian leader Sudsilo Bambang Yudhoyono reminded mourners that Wahid had made Indonesians “realize and respect the diversity of ideas and identities brought about by differences in faiths, beliefs, ethnicity and locality”. Dr. Yudhoyono declared Wahid “the father of pluralism and multiculturalism in Indonesia.”[2]

Following three decades of iron-fisted rule under Soeharto [commonly spelled “Suharto”] and an initially difficult transition under B.J. Habibie, Wahid’s approach towards a more open and tolerant society seemed like a welcome change. Wahid paved the way for a stable democracy in the world’s largest Muslim nation, a circumstance that he negotiated against the odds, giving the world a glimpse of his willingness to reach out and govern for all Indonesians. Amidst the backdrop of the 1999 Indonesian elections one year after mass street protests forced Soeharto to step down one year earlier, Wahid forged his reputation as a consensus builder, helping to negotiate a settlement resulting in Megawati taking the vice-presidency[3].

Throughout his leadership, Wahid pushed for a more secular Indonesia. Even after being deposed by parliament, he remained dignified and stuck to his core beliefs. These actions may soon be rewarded. The decision of Mrs. Megawati Sukarno-led opposition PDI-P (Indonesian Democratic Party for Struggle) to nominate Wahid a national hero for his efforts to promote democracy and protect minority groups provides a glimpse of how he altered Indonesia’s political establishment[4]. While Wahid’s elevation to this rare posthumous honor should not be questioned, for his deeds as a diplomat and peacemaker certainly rank him as a great leader, is this a poisoned chalice?

Two days after Wahid’s public memorial service, on January 4 2009, the Jakarta Globe reported that factional in-fighting within his own party threatened to mock the elevation of ‘Gus Dur’ to hero status. According to the Globe, Abdul Karding, committee chairman of the party that Wahid led, the PKB (National Awakening Party), is planning to invite members of the Ministry of Social Affairs to the parliamentary house chamber to lodge the official request, as factional in-fighting over the possibility of party unification casts a shadow over what should be a momentous occasion.[5]

Never one to forget his humble upbringing in rural Indonesia, Abdurrahman Wahid, or Gus Dur as he was known domestically, preferred to spend time with the people, shunning the behavior expected of him as a leader. Foundation chairman of the Australia-Indonesia Institute, Bruce Grant, spoke glowingly of a man who felt more at ease mixing with voters and riding trams in Melbourne on official visits to Australia, rather than accept the insular world associated with the VIP lifestyle of a national leader. Wahid believed that relations between Jakarta and Canberra should have a deeper meaning rather than one relying on meetings between official delegations, despite the ongoing presence of Australian soldiers in East Timor during his presidency, following the former Portuguese colony’s decision to secede from Indonesia in 1999[6].

One of Wahid’s greatest passions was to grant more rights to the ethnic Chinese, whose cultural practices had been suppressed for so long by Soeharto. The military, who were given a free reign to conduct mass intimidation tactics, had their influence upon government removed. Gus Dur sacked General Wiranto, the man widely regarded as engineering the Indonesian military’s terrorizing of East Timor’s civilian population throughout the 1990s. As president, he sent a message to the once indomitable army that the privileges enjoyed under Soeharto no longer applied. Wahid apologized to the Timorese people for the crimes committed by the military between 1974 and 1999. This appeared to be a personal goal towards reconciliation and normalizing relations between Jakarta and Dili.

While harmonious relations between the natural resource rich areas of East Timor and West Papua were priorities, Wahid’s greatest efforts were reserved for the province of Aceh. To promote strong relations between the Muslim population and other faiths for the province of Aceh that was devastated by the 2004 tsunami, which killed more than 250,000 and displaced more than one and a half million residents[7]. For the Buddhist Chinese community, Wahid overturned a 35 year old ban in Aceh implemented by President Soeharto on the lion dance known as barongsai in 2000. However, the ban was re-imposed eight days before Wahid’s death for what a local official described as “the sake of interfaith relations”, preventing a display in honor of the tsunami victims. The dance, the official said, was refused a public permit due to “not having been introduced to the people.[8]” Under Wahid’s presidency, Aceh was granted the right to implement shariah law, provided that it did not contain any use of harsh punishments that violated human rights and Indonesia’s Constitution. Andi Nusran, a Jakarta-based expert on state administration indicated would fail in Aceh, cited that such a call would not work, as the province was granted “special privilege” to be respected and preserved under the Constitution.[9] Critics argued that his peace negotiations which eventually led to the adoption of shariah law was an attempt at “half-hearted autonomy”, and Wahid himself admitted that, “it (regional autonomy) has been too hastily arranged.[10]”

Diplomatically, Wahid talked of extended his grand vision to developing bilateral relations with Israel, a partnership that still not been formulated to this day, and an issue that according to the former president, should have been a mere formality based on past precedents. In a 2002 interview with Australian current affairs show Foreign Correspondent, Wahid indicated that it was time for Jakarta to recognize Israel’s existence based on its religious beliefs, alluding to the country’s previous acceptance of atheist nations such as Russia and China in years gone by.[11] In the same interview in which he attacked the use of suicide bombings in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the name of Islam, referring to the late PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat as “a weakling. He’s very weak. He cannot control the fundamentalists[12].” Such straightforward thoughts, although delivered outside from the realms of office, were one reason for his eventually impeachment in 2001.

Wahid’s personable approach and ability to speak from the heart did not win over everybody in parliament and the electorate. From the beginning of 2001, it became clear that some of the problems that led to Soeharto’s dismissal were also problems for Wahid. His failure to address the economic realities such as a declining value of the Indonesian rupiah set off panic similar to the scenes leading up to the International Monetary Financial crisis that led to the country’s economy crashing in 1998.  In February 2001, Wahid sensed that the writing was on the wall when he declared, “After becoming president, it became apparent that before me there was nothing but jagged debris, the ruined wreck of the former administration — an enormous foreign debt, an economy in disorder, social injustices, conflagrations and accusations springing up everywhere.”[13] Wahid was impeached for alleged corruption, involving the illegal use of $AUD 2 million of public money and $AUD 4 million from the Sultan of Brunei. He consistently denied the charges, saying that his political rivals of conducting a smear campaign to oust him from office[14].

Tired of Wahid’s refusal to present his version of events and wanting to avoid a repeat economic collapse, Parliament ignored Wahid’s calls for a declaration of a state of emergency and voted him out of office. As Wahid faced down the tanks from his a balcony of the presidential palace dressed in shorts and sandals, unaware of proceedings, the man who set the path for Indonesia’s democracy in motion had his presidency in circumstances as tumultuous as they began. Vice-President Mrs. Megawati was installed over as interim leader until 2004, when Sudsilo Bambang Yudyohono won the elections. Wahid was never tried over the accusations.

In his post-political years, Wahid suffered a series of strokes which led to him being confined to a wheelchair. But he remained in the public eye about domestic politics, determined to be contribute to Indonesia’s rise as Southeast Asia’s shining democratic example to the world. He also opened the Wahid Institute, a body which aims to uphold a vision for close relations between the West and a progressive Islamic society.

The passing of Abdurrahman Wahid on Wednesday 30 December, 2009, marked a sad day in not just the short history of Indonesia’s democratic tenure, but also throughout the Asia-Pacific region. Wahid’s achievements have done much to sell the message that Indonesia plays a more prominent role in regional affairs, and that its cultural diversity, embracing of democratic principles and respect for minority and civilian rights rate among its greatest selling points.  A leader ahead of his time, Gus Dur is thoroughly deserving of elevation to hero status for his role in providing Indonesia with a bright future.


[1] Jakarta Post, Tonight, One Million Candles for Gus Dur, January 2, 2010,  http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2010/01/02/tonight-one-million-candles-gus-dur.html

[2] BBC, Ex-Indonesia Abdurrahman Wahid dies, 31 December 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/8435720.stm

[3] Official results of the Indonesian Legislative Election on June 7, 1999, show that the PDI-P collected 35,706,618 votes compared to the PKB’s total of 13,336,963. In October, the People’s Collective Assembly, comprising of 500 members of the People’s Representative Council and 200 nominated members met to vote for the positions of President and Vice-President of the Republic of Indonesia. On 20 October, Abdurrahman Wahid defeated Megawati Sukarnoputri by 373 votes to 313 for the position of President. Mrs. Megawati defeated Hamzah Haz the United Development Party (PPP) 396 to 284 Source: http://www.seasite.niu.edu/Indonesian/Indonesian_Elections/Election_text.htm

[4] Jakarta Post, PDI-P to Nominate Gus Dur as National Her, January 2,2010, http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2010/01/02/pdip-nominate-gus-dur-national-hero.html

[5] Jakarta Globe, Is Gus Dur’s Wish for Indonesian Party Peace on the Rocks?, January 4, 2010, http://thejakartaglobe.com/home/is-gus-durs-wish-for-indonesian-party-peace-on-the-rocks/350639

[6] Grant, B. (2010), Indonesian leader was a man for all people, The Sunday Age, January 1, pg. 21

[7] ABC Radio Australia, Many Aceh tsunami victims still awaiting homes, December 24 2009, http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/asiapac/stories/200912/s2780619.htm

[8] The Malaysian Insider, (2009), Controversy over lion dance ban in Aceh tsunami event, December 22, http://www.themalaysianinsider.com/index.php/world/47299-controversy-over-lion-dance-ban-in-aceh-tsunami-event

[9] Nurdin Hasan and Dessy Sagita (2009), Aceh Prepares to See Stonings, Lashings as Law, Jakarta Globe, September 9, 2009: http://thejakartaglobe.com/home/aceh-prepares-to-see-stonings-lashings-as-law/328853

[10] Jakarta Post (2000), Abudrrahman Wahid implements half-hearted autonomy, December 21, http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2000/12/21/abdurrahman-wahid-implements-halfhearted-autonomy.html

[11] Quote taken from Foreign Correspondent, ABC TV, “Interview with Abdurrahman Wahid”, April 17, 2002. http://www.abc.net.au/foreign/stories/s551141.htm[12] Ibid

[13] Mydans, S., (2001), Indonesia’s leader seems to be on the way out the door, New York Times, April 30, http://www.nytimes.com/2001/04/30/world/indonesia-s-leader-seems-to-be-on-way-out-the-door.html

[14] ABC News Radio, “Wahid faces impeachment over corruption allegations”, February 1, 2001  http://www.abc.net.au/worldtoday/stories/s240618.htm