Tue, 04 Feb 2003

Ex-president's memorable legacy

Muhammad Nafik, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

For former enigmatic president Abdurrahman Wahid, all Indonesians -- be they of Chinese descent or of other ethnic backgrounds -- are equal.

He believes Indonesians should not be segregated into indigenous and non-indigenous citizens, because such categorizations would only allow racial discrimination to persist.

"That's why I do not wish to consider Chinese-Indonesians as so-called non-indigenous people," Abdurrahman, better known as Gus Dur, told The Jakarta Post.

During his tenure as president in 2000, Gus Dur took the opportunity to make one of his most significant contributions to the nation, particularly to Chinese-Indonesians, by scrapping Presidential Decree No. 14/1967 on Chinese religion, beliefs and traditional customs.

The decree was issued by former dictator Soeharto during the beginning of his presidency, two years after the failed coup blamed on the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965.

The decree banned Indonesians of Chinese descent from publicly practicing their religious beliefs and traditional customs, and instead relegated such practices to the privacy of their own homes.

Gus Dur followed the revocation of this racist decree with the issuance of a new decree on Jan. 17, 2000, which allows Chinese traditional customs and beliefs to be practiced openly without requiring permission from authorities.

This placed Gus Dur at the forefront of fighting discrimination against Chinese-Indonesians, and strengthened his status as a respected, pluralist national figure.

The move also further raised his popularity among the Chinese- Indonesians, as it proved his commitment to eliminating discriminatory measures against non-indigenous citizens.

If he were president now, he could have also reversed a number of other discriminatory decrees and laws which are still in effect.

"If you had told me what more I should have done, I would have done so. It's not my business to find discriminatory regulations," said Gus Dur.

Like many others, he admitted to the existence of discriminatory treatment against Chinese-Indonesians, but on the other hand, he added, there was also unequal treatment against indigenous citizens by non-indigenous ones.

Gus Dur has received frequent complaints about discriminatory treatment from indigenous managers and other executives working for companies owned by ethnic Chinese businesspeople.

They said they could not, or found it hard to, achieve higher positions in their companies, or that they were paid lower than ethnic Chinese workers in the same positions.

"So, discrimination takes place on both sides -- the majority and the minority groups," Gus Dur said. "The minority Chinese- Indonesian group should be aware of this."

He said Chinese-Indonesians should follow up such complaints with the "capability to carry out an internal correction", in order to smooth the integration process.

Discrimination also exists in inter-ethnic relationships: Many Chinese-Indonesian women had also conveyed their grievances to Gus Dur, that they were prohibited from marrying indigenous men by their parents.

For Gus Dur, who claims to have Chinese blood, the issue of discrimination is the responsibility of all Indonesian citizens.

"If (Indonesians) of Chinese descent truly feel that they are Indonesian citizens, they should not only voice their complaints, but also take action to eliminate discrimination," he said.

"Therefore, revisions should be made to incorporate both sides," he added.

Last year, President Megawati Soekarnoputri declared the Chinese Lunar New Year, locally known as Imlek, a national holiday beginning 2003 in a move aimed at showing her own commitment to eradicating racism.

Unlike most Indonesians, Gus Dur was unhappy with this decision by his successor, who had helped topple him from power in 2001. He had once proposed that Imlek be adopted as an optional holiday.

"We already have too many national holidays. The declaration of another holiday would make Indonesians lazy... We need to be more efficient," he explained.

The 62-year-old Gus Dur remains enigmatic and controversial in his stance -- which has sometimes been deemed unpopular or contentious -- despite having been forced to step down as president after only a 20-month term.

Yet, Indonesians in general and many world figures acknowledge him as a respected, pluralist Muslim leader.

Gus Dur, born on Aug. 4, 1940, has long been advocating religious moderation among Muslims, particularly among the followers of Nahdlatul Ulama (NU), which he had chaired before he became President of Indonesia in 1999.

His disgraceful ouster from office in August 2001 has apparently not made him desperate and frustrated like his two predecessors, Soeharto and Habibie, who have since been absent from the arena of practical politics.

Though now almost completely blind, Gus Dur is still a very visible political figure, confident and charismatic, and he vows to make a political comeback in the 2004 elections to challenge Megawati, who was formerly a close friend.

His leadership of the nation's biggest Muslim organization inspired and influenced many NU scholars to promote moderation in religious thoughts and practices. Among these scholars are current NU leader Hasyim Muzadi, as well as other senior officers Ulil Absar Abdalla, Masdar Farid Masudi and A.S. Hikam.

Gus Dur, grandson to NU's founder Hasyim Asy'ari, also played a pivotal role in building and expanding NU to become the most influential Islamic organization in predominantly Muslim Indonesia, now boasting a membership of over 40 million. This, in turn, stirred the former Soeharto regime to sideline the group politically.

Gus Dur's campaigns for pluralism caused him to be branded by other Indonesian Muslims as an agent of Israel and the United States, especially because of his controversial remarks on religious practices and national policies.

Such criticism and opposition, however, have not succeeded in stopping him from advocating what he believes to be true and genuine. Instead, true to form, he has taken such things in stride while forging ahead, setting his own pace and trend.