Indonesia loses a fine son in Gus Dur

In my last post I wrote about the tolerance inherent in the distinctly syncretic form of Islam found within Indonesia. Yesterday one of the pillars of this movement left us. Former President Abdurrahman Wahid or “Gus Dur” as he is affectionately known to Indonesians, and people all over the world, died “from complications of diabetes, kidney failure, and stroke,” at 6.45 p.m. yesterday.

Gus Dur will long be remembered as a tolerant and inclusive man who placed the health of his country and its people well before his own. A global citizen with deep attachments to his land, his locality and his religion he was sustained by Indonesia’s rich syncretic culture. Already ailing when he assumed the Presidency of Indonesia he tackled the difficult task of clearing the way towards a fuller expression of democracy in Indonesia by challenging the power of the military.

Before becoming President, Gus Dur was head of the largest Islamic organisation in the world, Nahdlatul Ulama, with at least 34 million followers. I first became more intimately aware of Gus Dur in 1995, through the work of his friend, Australian film maker, Curtis Levy.

Curtis made a film called Invitation to a Wedding. I think the film was meant to focus on Gus Dur and on Islam in Indonesia. Events conspired to frustrate the filmmaker, yet with sheer brilliance Curtis turned this into a subtle but highly relevant exploration of the final stages of New Order Indonesia. He also foreshadowed a President in waiting. We owe him a debt, certainly not as great as the one we owe Gus Dur, but he did much to bring Gus Dur to the world.

In 1999 I was fortunate enough to arrive in Jakarta on the day of the election rally (kampanye) held by the four major Muslim parties, the National Awakening Party (PKB – Abdurrahman Wahid), the National Mandate Party (PAN – Amien Rais), the Crescent Star Party (PBB – Yusril Ihza Mahendra) and the United Development Party (PPP – Hamzah Haz). I didn’t know what to expect, in fact the road from the airport seemed clear and it seemed an early arrival might allow us to avoid the campaign rallies, we were quite wrong . The usual 40 minute journey from the airport became a 2 hour event. Our driver was at first a little unsettled.

Travelling with an Australian Indonesian teacher Paul Arbon it wasn’t long before, at Paul’s insistence, we threw open the taxi windows so we could collect campaign materials. These were like gold for a language teacher.

Our driver skillfully negotiated streets choked by slowly moving, very restrained and smiling supporters of the Muslim parties. Despite political differences they were all traveling together without any apparent animosity. The overwhelming impression was one of the youthfulness and friendliness of the participants. It was contagious and contrary to anything that we might have expected given the negative impressions created in the Australian media. This was a celebration of the right to occupy the streets and to openly and publicly express a political sentiment.

Kampanye in Jakarta tend to converge at the roundabout on Jalan Thamrin, in front of Hotel Indonesia. Here floats and mobile stages narrowed the way bringing things to a standstill. Our scheduled lunchtime meeting became irrelevant as slow moving traffic was wedged to a stop by motorbikes that drew into every available space.

Someone on a microphone called out the names of lost children and then called the crowd to prayer. There was a focusing of attention, an appeal for God’s help in bringing about a safe, orderly and honest election, then at the closing of prayers a call for people to clean-up the area. This certainly wasn’t the chaos I feared we might encounter. Here was a most orderly process.

I still recall the long hiatus that followed the 1999 elections. Curtis was quietly confident that Gus Dur would become the first democratically elected President of Indonesia. He was right.

Curtis Levy has made five films in Indonesia, apart from Invitation to a Wedding; he made Riding the Tiger, a 3-part series examining the origin of authoritarian rule in Indonesia, which won the Atom Award for Best Television Series. His most significant film was Jakarta at High Noon.

Jakarta at High Noon covers the time Gus Dur was taking on the power of the military in a tactical battle over who would run Indonesia. For part of this struggle he was out of the country.  Some suspected a military coup, but through his political mastery Gus Dur won the day.  Levy allows us to observe Gus Dur in this intense struggle with General Wiranto, Suharto’s strongman, who had been in charge of the Indonesian army during the sacking of East Timor after the referendum.

Gus Dur captured my imagination and support as his character emerged in this film. I realized that we shared common interests in Beethoven, Janis Joplin and the films of Francois Truffaut. I realized how important and humanizing a figure he was on the world stage.

Although of a different faith to me, I’m quietly confident that God will smile on this son of His. May he rest with God until the end of time.

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