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Pluralistic, tolerant leader dies in Jakarta

Former President Abdurrahman "Gus Dur" Wahid dies at age 69 and is declared a national hero. The House of Representatives wants to pay more attention to Papua, surprising Papuans. Ceremonies mark the fifth anniversary of the Aceh earthquake and tsunami. Indonesia's gas regulator ends state-owned Pertamina's monopoly on subsidies. Sri Mulyani may be summoned to Parliament to explain a controversial bailout. The Rupiah's sharp rising against the dollar is curtailed. And a panic ensues on New Year's Eve in Bali after a terror warning is issued, then retracted.

Top News: New Year’s Eve celebrations were muted for many millions of Indonesians this year after former Indonesian president and one of the Muslim world’s most prominent proponents of pluralism and tolerance, Abdurrahman Wahid,  died Dec. 30 at the age of 69.


Popularly known as Gus Dur, he served as Indonesia’s president from 1999 – 2001, amid the turmoil following the fall of the longtime dictator, Suharto, in 1997 and the subsequent ouster of Suharto’s vice president, B.J. Habibe. Although Gus Dur would later be impeached, leaving office early mired in corruption scandals, his legacy would change Indonesia forever.


The almost-blind cleric quickly moved to end discrimination against ethnic Chinese Indonesians. He held talks with separatists in both the restive provinces of Aceh and West Papua, and established a free press – all of which likely contributed to his political difficulties.


After his impeachment, Gus Dur, a former journalist and lover of books and classical music, joked that he missed his old collection of Beethoven symphonies more than he would ever miss being president. As the leader of the Nahdlatul Ulama, Indonesia’s and the world’s largest Islamic group, Gus Dur was celebrated for his tireless promotion of a  tolerant and  pluralistic version of Islam right up until his death.


Now, a week after he died in a Jakarta hospital, the Indonesian government has moved to declare Gus Dur a national hero. Like everything in Indonesia, the declaration is not without controversy. Some question why Suharto, who died well over two years ago, was never given the same honor.  There are a few possible reasons.


Indonesia’s House of Representatives opened its first session of the year by calling on the government to pay more attention to Papua. The call came as a surprise to many Papuan activists who are long used to the remote island being almost completely ignored by all levels of government. Increasing violence in the province, including the recent death of a Papuan separatist leader, however, has brought new attention on the resource-rich corner of the country.


The five year anniversary of the devastating earthquake and tsunami that obliterated large portions of the northernmost province of Aceh, and killed 170,000 people there, passed with solemn ceremonies and a flurry of retrospective press stories on Dec. 26. Most accounts deemed the reconstruction effort in Aceh a big success.


Money: The few foreign downstream gas sellers brave enough to operate stations in Indonesia look poised to finally get a share of the subsidized fuel market this year. Indonesia’s gas regulator announced Dec. 28 that the state oil company, Pertamina, would no longer be the sole supplier of subsidized gas, ending the company’s monopoly.


The regulator said it has given permission to Petronas, a Malaysian company, and an Indonesian company to start selling the heavily subsidized fuel. Royal Dutch Shell, however, was not included for reasons not explained. “After we evaluated their capabilities in providing fuel, we selected them,” Tubagus Haryono, head of the regulatory body, said to reporters about why the agency chose Petronas and not Shell.


Both Shell and Petronas have been struggling to sell non-subsidized fuel at their super-sleek, modern stations for years with little success. Most Indonesians continue to value the cheaper fuel over the brightly-lit, heavily serviced foreign-owned stations.


Finance Minister Sri Mulyani may be summoned by Parliament within days to answer questions regarding the  controversial bailout of Bank Century during the height of the financial crisis. Mulyani has insisted the bailout was necessary to prevent a domino-effect among Indonesia’s banks. The issue, earlier elevated to scandal, but now often called a conspiracy, and its accompanying politics have bogged down the celebrated reformer along with much of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s government.


Bank Indonesia has moved to contain the Rupiah’s rise, one of the world’s sharpest. The central bank bought dollars on Tuesday to keep the Rupiah at its current level of about 9,300. The  high-yielding currency has gained 1.3 percent against this dollar in the first week of this month after a 17 percent rally in 2009.


Elsewhere: In a  confusing series of events, the resort island of Bali was briefly consumed by panic in the afternoon of Dec. 31 after the United States Embassy released a statement warning revelers there of a possible terror attack, quoting the island’s governor. “There is an indication of an attack to Bali tonight,” the Embassy message quoted the governor as saying. “Please don’t panic, but put your security system to full alert.”


The message spread through e-mail and text message like a wildfire around both Bali and Jakarta, putting a damper on celebrations and causing the country’s press corps to leap into action. The governor later denied he ever issued any specific warning, adding that a general warning is customary around the holidays.