Gus Dur has firm grip despite Muslim demos


President Abdurrahman Wahid has a firm hold on power in Indonesia despite the efforts of Muslim radicals last week to whip up anti-government sentiment and undermine his standing, State Secretary Bondan Gunawan said in an interview yesterday.

He described the protests as nothing more than a “hit-and-run strategy” by disaffected groups. “Some elements might hope to motivate and influence people to register their unhappiness with Gus Dur,” he told The Straits Times.

But the 59-year-old Indonesian President, known popularly as Gus Dur, continues to enjoy “broad-based support” across the country.

“Believe me, he can survive politically because he has the backing of most Indonesians,” Mr Bondan said.

For two days running last week, thousands of Muslim youths called for a holy war against the country’s Christian minority and demanded the removal of Mr Abdurrahman saying he was protecting the enemies of Islam.

They also attacked his plans to revoke a ban on communism in Indonesia and to resume trade ties with Israel. Mr Bondan, 52, said that while the President was angry with suggestions that he was “only protecting Christians and ignoring others”, he did not see the protests as a threat to his position.

“We are not worried about 5,000 people gathering in Jakarta. This is not a national movement,” Mr Bondan said. “Indonesia does not revolve just around Jakarta … not anymore.”

Ironically though, the holding of such demonstrations has been the result of the freedom of expression Mr Abdurrahman has supported – and which he has described as being one of the government’s biggest successes.

“He has given space for the people to be critical of the government,” Mr Bondan said. “Yes, we invite constructive criticism because that is the only way we can improve ourselves.

“We are now learning how to practice democracy.”

Analysts said that one key aspect of the evolving democracy has been the sidelining of the once-powerful Indonesian military (TNI).

The minister yesterday noted that while there were some disaffected TNI elements, the President enjoyed close links with the military as an institution.

“There are a small number who are unhappy, but they are not strong enough to challenge him,” he said declining to disclose any names.

But The Straits Times understands that among them are senior army officers affected by a recent military reshuffle.

Mr Bondan also said that the key challenge for Mr Abdurrahman was restoring the economy.

The government’s economic track record is likely to come under heavy scrutiny when Mr Abdurrahman presents a report card of his achievements to the People’s Consultative Assembly in August.

Mr Bondan acknowledged that Indonesia’s economic statistics were not flattering. But this alone was not sufficient to indicate that the country was not on the road to recovery after the crippling financial crisis.

“Just see how crowded our shopping malls are. There is a consumption boom. There is a mood of optimism and hope that the government will solve the problems,” he said.

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