Sun, 21 May 2000

Gus Dur turns to the 'silent majority'

JAKARTA (JP): President Abdurrahman Wahid went over the heads of the country's politicians on Saturday and turned directly to the public for support over his proposal to lift a 34-year-old ban against communism in Indonesia.

During a 45-minute television talk show broadcast nationwide, the President spelled out his reasons for seeking to end the ban.

Gus Dur, as the President is popularly called, said he believed that the majority of people did not care, let alone oppose, his proposal, and that opposition so far had only come from a handful of the country's political elite.

But he warned the political elites that ignoring the "silent majority" could cost them votes in the next election in 2004.

The President has defied critics by continuing with his campaign to have the ban on communism lifted by the People's Consultative Assembly (MPR) in its next seating in August.

Many political parties have rejected the idea, and Muslim groups have taken to the streets to air their opposition, some calling on the MPR to impeach the moderate Muslim cleric in August.

One protest, involving several hundred people, was staged along Jakarta's main thoroughfare, Jl. Thamrin, on Saturday just hours before the taping of the television show.

Gus Dur said he was pushing ahead with his proposal to meet his constitutional duties to uphold human rights, respect freedom of expression and restore the rule of law in this country.

"Whether the MPR heeds my call is up to them. I have done my duty," he said in the discussion held by state-run TVRI, which also involved cultural observer Mohammad Sobari.

"You cannot ban a teaching. You, or society can oppose it, but the state does not have the authority to outlaw a teaching.

"Once you empower the state to ban a teaching, there is no stopping it. That would be infringing human rights," he said.

Sobari added that it would be impossible to ban a teaching in this age when people have TV or access to the Internet directly from their own living rooms.

The ban was imposed by the Provisional MPR (MPRS) in 1966, one year after a coup attempt, which the Army has since blamed on the now-defunct Indonesian Communist Party (PKI).

"The MPRS decree is not a sacred document," Gus Dur said.

He recalled many other instances when MPR decrees had been revoked, including the 1976 integration into Indonesia of East Timor, and the lifetime presidency title for Sukarno enacted in the early 1960s.

He said he was puzzled that the revocation of the East Timor decree last year, representing a loss of territory, did not evoke as much outcry as his proposal to end the communist ban.

Gus Dur said that although he was raised in an environment that was so anticommunist, he would not endorse any government ban against the PKI.

"I fear that most of the killing in 1966 may have been committed by Nahdlatul Ulama," said Gus Dur, the former chairman of Indonesia's largest Muslim social organization, referring to a bloodbath unleashed by the anti-PKI sentiments in the aftermath of the abortive coup.

"It's time we change ... It's time we grew up," he said, adding that this was the last time he would addressed the issue until his speech in the MPR in August. (prb/emb)