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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

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The Wahid Mystique
It's turning out to be the Wahid mistake for many of his pronouncements
By ROGER MITTON

December 1, 1999
Web posted at 12:00 p.m. Hong Kong time, 11:00 a.m. EDT


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The Week Ahead
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As Indonesian President Abdurrahman Wahid was ushered around the ASEAN summit in Manila this week, with his wheelchair-bound wife nearby, there were too many unseemly comments about physical infirmities. But while people may lament that their beloved Gus Dur could not see much, many may actually wish he wouldn't say much. More than his eyes, his lips, of late, have occasioned such consternation at home and in Asian capitals over remarks that, to spin it positively, make very good wake-up calls.

The latest came soon after Wahid landed in Jakarta from the ASEAN meeting. He remarked that relations with Australia won't improve until it changes its "childish attitude" toward Indonesia. Such verbal bombshells threaten to explode amid a wide swathe of delicate topics, from Aceh separatism to Malaysian work habits. These declarations have had to be defused by clarifications, if not recantations, from the president or his scrambling minions. To be sure, the media and the more liberal wing of ASEAN are delighted at the Wahidisms, but the reaction in other circles, particularly the region's hidebound autocrats, borders on horror.

Let's cue back. Wahid's first words as president were conventional enough: he took his oath of office on October 20. At that time, the holocaust that attended East Timor's vote for secession was still smoldering news. With images and cries from that nightmare still fresh in the region's minds, one would think a new head of state would not hint at anything that may turn into another referendum from hell. Think again. No sooner had his helpers eased Wahid into the presidential suite, than he was dropping the "R" word in talking about another restive province, Aceh. Bluntly, he said the Acehnese could have a referendum like the East Timorese, if that was what they wanted.

Now the Timor vote had been, in effect, an all-or-nothing choice of more autonomy within Indonesia or independence. Natch, everyone thought Wahid was offering Aceh the same in-or-out vote -- including at least 100,000 pro-independence Acehnese who rallied in the provincial capital Banda Aceh to make their preference plain within days of Wahid's pronouncement.

Elements of the military, dutybound to preserve Indonesia's territory and unity, also let their views on the referendum remark be known. Major-Gen. Sudrajat, the armed forces spokesman in Aceh, said "referendum is not the best solution." Analysts wondered whether another freedom vote would set the dominoes falling from Riau and East Kalimantan to Maluku and Irian Jaya. Officials in neighboring countries got thinking about their own restive minorities.

As feathers ruffled all around, Wahid did a Habibie, suggesting he did not think Acehnese would vote to break away. Then came further clarification that the referendum would be on autonomy or no autonomy, not independence -- which triggered bloody protests. Finally, after Wahid had toured ASEAN and West Asia and gotten an earful about how little international support there was for Acehnese independence, his government let it be known in late November that the referendum for Aceh would be about Islamic law, not the other "I" word.

Now maybe good old Gus Dur was just trying a bit of strategy on the Acehnese with his referendum line, getting them all excited so the rest of the world would rush to douse the idea. Well, he certainly seemed to like what he did. Indeed, while the referendum line was making headlines, Wahid let rip again with a statement about improving trade ties with Israel which seemed to presage Indonesian recognition of the Jewish state. That went down like a ton of bricks with Gus Dur's own Muslim constituency back home. It needed another clarification that ties with Jerusalem were not on the horizon anytime soon.

Then, on the obligatory tour of other ASEAN capitals which all new Southeast Asian leaders undertake, Wahid had a special balloon to float in Yangon. Could he please visit pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi? The splutters from Myanmar's ruling generals could almost be heard in Jakarta, and they told him to deep-six that idea (which he did). Three retractions in three weeks and the guy was barely out of first gear.

Then came an undiplomatic gaff that the only place to find Malaysian ministers was on the golf course. This while Mahathir's cabinet men and women were criss-crossing the country campaigning for federal elections and trying hard to appear industrious and committed public servants, not mashie-swinging skivvers. An appropriate clarification followed, crafted by Wahid's principal private damage controller -- probably the busiest man in his entourage.

More work for him came when Wahid said he would like to visit Muslim "brother" Hashim Salamat, leader of the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao, southern Philippines. Given Jakarta's role in forging Manila's peace agreement with the much larger Moro National Liberation Front, Gus Dur's Philippine itinerary was unnerving to Philippine security officials, to say the least. There were fears at the very top in Manila that an encounter with the Indonesian leader might enable the insurgents to claim belligerency status. Threatening to overshadow the ASEAN summit itself, the proposed Wahid-Salamat meeting was nixed at the last moment -- ostensibly because the MILF chief could not be found in his jungle hideout.

Some may wish Wahid himself would go into hiding until he has learned to think carefully before he speaks. On the other hand, many others, tired of ASEAN's gray sobriety, love the spicy presidential pronunciamentos. South Korean Foreign Minister Hong Soon Young said he liked what Wahid was doing and it was good to see someone doing it in ASEAN. Hong's Philippine counterpart Domingo Siazon hedged by saying all heads of state need to go through "a learning curve." Savvy Singapore PM Goh Chok Tong allowed that Wahid had "a lively mind" and appeared to know where he was going. Well, there's at least one plus in Gus Dur's game of verbal bait and switch. If he ever declares war on a country, his opposite number can forget about mobilizing troops -- and just wait for the clarification.

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