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Indonesia: Abdurrahman Wahid's Human Rights Legacy

(New York)-When, on October 20, 1999, Abdurrahman Wahid became Indonesia's first democratically elected president in more than four decades, he was welcomed at home and abroad as the country's best hope for healing political rifts, building civil society, and revitalizing government.

Less than two years later, when the Indonesian parliament forced him from office not even halfway through his term on July 21, 2001, the country was as divided and disordered as he found it. Basic reforms, if attempted at all, were barely off the ground, and the army, still operating largely beyond the reach of the law, was regaining much of the political clout it had lost with the 1998 ouster of Soeharto.

There is no question that the deck was stacked against Wahid (or Gus Dur as he is often known) when he took office. From the start, he confronted crisis piled upon crisis and a politically fractious society with little experience with politics. The economy was in tatters. Soeharto was gone, but four decades of authoritarian rule (the last thirty-two under Soeharto) had left government institutions discredited and regional and ethnic conflicts on the rise, each group believing that it's time had come. State institutions simply lacked the political know-how and legitimacy to play much of a role in resolving the conflicts. The judiciary was corrupt to the core. And Gus Dur himself controlled only 11% of the seats in the parliament, his victory due to his own effective coalition building and the missteps by the candidate with the most votes in the general election, Megawati Sukarnoputri.

When Wahid took office, Soeharto's family, wealthy business associates, and many supporters among active and retired military officers also remained powerful, if less visible than before. Throughout his term, conspiratorial reports continued to circulate of efforts by Soeharto backers to subvert any reform that might compromise old business interests. Some of the reports were plausible, some not; all were virtually impossible to prove or disprove.

Still, the situation was not hopeless. Public demands for reform were high. Outgoing President Habibie, who, as Soeharto's vice president had assumed the presidency in 1998 when Soeharto was forced to step down, had taken some important first steps. Under Habibie, the government released political prisoners, ratified the international convention against torture, formally removed the police from military control, agreed to a UN-supervised referendum on the political future of East Timor, and, in June 1999, lifted restrictions on political parties and presided over the most democratic elections in Indonesia since 1955.

Habibie, however, was too close to Soeharto and his cronies and, as the Timor carnage vividly demonstrated, he was unwilling or unable to move against military leaders responsible for forced disappearances, torture, and extrajudicial killings, or to put an end to abuses in trouble spots.

Initial hopes for Gus Dur's presidency were bolstered by some early successes. Immediately following his election in October 1999, Gus Dur appointed the first civilian defense minister in decades; in February 2000, he managed to sideline General Wiranto, who had been in command of the Indonesian military during the scorched earth destruction of East Timor and was arguably the single most powerful man in the country at the time Gus Dur took office; in April 2000, Gus Dur formally disbanded Bakorstanas, the hated internal security organization. Under Gus Dur, basic freedoms such as freedom of the press and free association flourished. Gus Dur encouraged openness through statements in defense of free expression, including for unpopular groups such as communists and political dissidents. Gus Dur brought a religiously and ethnically diverse group of people into leadership positions. He made an historic fence-mending visit to East Timor and apologized for the sufferings Indonesia had caused. And, though the process was painfully slow and the courts have still not yet been established, he supported legislation to create new human rights courts to address both present and past atrocities.

Despite these steps, Gus Dur paid relatively little attention to long-term institution building. He regularly squandered opportunities for reform. He focused instead on inter-elite politicking and on countering real and perceived threats from Soeharto supporters. Despite his attention to such threats, however, Gus Dur failed spectacularly to do the political groundwork necessary to push the old forces aside.

From the start, Gus Dur began alienating people who should have been important allies. He repeatedly traveled overseas as domestic political fires burned at home, casually announcing the sacking of key government and military personnel thousands of miles from Jakarta, which rankled. His continual shakeups of the military hierarchy were so resented that they eventually united officers against him. Unfounded corruption allegations against -- and the firing of -- key members of his own cabinet such as mainstream economist Laksamana Sukardi, a key advisor of Megawati, turned many pro-reform moderates against him. Many other politicians came to view Gus Dur as imperious, acting as if he had no need of coalition partners to govern when in fact he controlled only a minuscule percentage of parliamentary votes.

Gus Dur's failure to consult with other power blocs in government eventually led key groups, particularly the military, to ignore him. This pattern was first evident on Aceh where, for a while, Gus Dur acted as a break on a full-scale military offensive. When it was clear that Gus Dur was losing political momentum, senior military leaders embarked on the offensive anyway with disastrous results. His blindness made him dependent on oral sources and he came to depend almost exclusively on a too narrow circle of friends. His information on conflicts going on elsewhere in Indonesia was often embarrassingly wrong.

Eventually, Gus Dur turned to authoritarian tactics to try and stop the parliamentary moves against him. He made no secret of the fact that he wanted to declare a state of emergency and dissolve the parliament, unilaterally declaring that the impeachment moves against him were unconstitutional without acknowledging the wide power given to parliament in Indonesia's constitution. The army's decision to side with the parliament put it in the paradoxical position of defending democracy against Indonesia's great democratic hope. In his last desperate act as president, when he tried to impose a quasi-state of emergency, the army and police politely declined to go along. Gus Dur, a man who came to power through astute parliamentary politics, proved to be an utter failure at the daily politics necessary to run the country effectively.

Gus Dur's record was particular disappointing on trouble spots such as Aceh and Papua. Gus Dur recognized that violently suppressing separatist sentiment in the long-term was likely to backfire and to further fuel armed opposition to Jakarta. He supported a cease-fire in Aceh and welcomed the mediation efforts of the Geneva-based Humanitarian Dialogue Center. In Papua, he apologized for four decades of mistreatment of the population under de facto martial law, and encouraged Papuan leaders to hold province-wide congresses in which they openly expressed their grievances with Jakarta and their political aspirations.

But these initial steps were not carried through in any consistent fashion as Gus Dur's attention repeatedly returned to real and perceived political enemies in Jakarta. Gus Dur failed to resolve the refugee crisis in Indonesian West Timor, where tens of thousands of East Timorese, many of whom had been forcibly displaced from their homes by army-backed militias at the time of the 1999 U.N.-supervised referendum, continued to live in often-deplorable conditions. He was similarly ineffective in addressing economic and social resentments that fueled spiraling religious and ethnic conflicts in the Moluccas and in South Kalimantan.

Eventually, Gus Dur made feeble attempts to use his early initiatives and good relations with leaders in troublespots for purposes of political blackmail, publicly asserting (without factual basis) that five provinces would secede if he were ousted. By the end, the military simply returned to increased use of military force in trouble spots, the approach it had long favored, paying no attention to the president's wishes.

Perhaps Gus Dur's most glaring failure was his failure to take decisive action to confront Indonesia's violent past and thereby provide greater protection against future violence. He never clearly articulated the extent to which Indonesia's current crises reflected the legacy of state-backed violence bequeathed by Soeharto, let alone how, practically, the nation should go about facing that legacy in building a new society.

Despite the horrific record of the armed forces since 1965, not a single high-ranking military officer was prosecuted during his tenure. For every step forward, it seems, there was a step backward. Gus Dur publicly apologized for the role played by his own organization, the NU, in mass killings of communists and suspected communists in the mid 1960s, but he did not take a firm stance in support of creating a framework for public resentments to be aired and a more honest telling to emerge. On occasion, he publicly expressed support for tribunals for past atrocities, but he did almost nothing to see that such tribunals were established and, to date, they have not been. Indeed, soon after ousting Wiranto in February 2000, Gus Dur unilaterally announced that he would pardon Wiranto if Wiranto were found responsible for the carnage in East Timor. A year and a half later, no moves have been made to prosecute Wiranto. On the critical issue of establishing accountability for abuses so that the violent policies of the past are not repeated, a near silence prevailed under Gus Dur.

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