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Former Indonesian President Remembered as Advocate for Tolerance, Democracy


Former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid has been buried after a state funeral. In 1999 Mr. Wahid became Indonesia's first elected president following the fall of military strongman Suharto. While his time in office was short and tumultuous he is remembered as a key figure in Indonesia's transition to democracy and in establishing a national identity of tolerance.

Thousands of mourners chanted the Islamic prayer, "there is no god but Allah," as former Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid was buried near his home in East Java Thursday.

Better known by his nickname Gus Dur, he died Wednesday at the age of 69 of complications arising from diabetes and strokes he had suffered.

Current President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono led the memorial service. He says Indonesia has lost one of the best sons of the nation and one of its best statesmen.

Mr. Wahid rose to political prominence through his role as leader of one of the country's biggest Islamic movements, the Nahdlatul Ulama (NU). He was a critic of military strongman Mr. Suharto during his nearly three decades in power.

In 1999, soon after Mr. Suharto was forced to resign, national elections were held and Mr. Wahid was selected by the parliament to become Indonesia's fourth president.

Political commentator Wimar Witoelar was President Wahid's chief presidential spokesman. He says Mr. Wahid established national values of tolerance and equality that today define democracy in Indonesia.

"They have lived on. They have lived on," said Witoelar. "The things we are praised now for being, … the anti-corruption going on stream, the military which is taking a back seat into politics, the notion that Chinese and other minorities are equal, their holidays being celebrated, the multi-religiosity, the religious pluralism in which you can see fantastic Christmas carols in the malls of Jakarta are all an offspring of breakthroughs he did."

World leaders are sending their condolences to President Wahid's family and the people of Indonesia. U.S. President Barack Obama said President Wahid will be remembered for his commitment to democratic principles, inclusive politics, and religious tolerance.

Mr. Wahid sought dialogue and conciliation with ethnic separatists in Aceh and Papua. And he visited East Timor to apologize for Indonesian atrocities there and tried unsuccessfully to put in place a truth commission. He also cracked down on Islamist extremists in 2000 after terrorist bombings killed 18 people in Indonesia.

As president, Mr. Wahid challenged traditional power centers. He worked to roll back the role of the military in political life and to decentralize power to Indonesia's far-flung provinces. But his administration was characterized by unpredictable cabinet reshuffles and allegations of nepotism.

And he alienated some Muslim supporters by calling for diplomatic relations with Israel and an end to a Cold War-era ban on communism.

His term ended in 2001 with his impeachment for alleged corruption for misappropriation of state funds. Mr. Wahid initially attempted to remain in power by declaring a state of emergency but eventually stepped down. He denied any wrongdoing and was never tried on criminal charges.

Witoelar says Mr. Wahid was forced out of office because he was unwilling to compromise his political integrity and presidential authority.

"I was a witness into several negotiations in which the Golkar party and others offered a compromise solution but he never thought of accepting them," said Witoelar. "He said it is too important, his opportunity to uphold moral principles in politics was too important to be sacrificed for the sake of expediency."

While President Abdurrahman Wahid's time in office was short, his vision of Indonesia as a tolerant, pluralistic society endures.