Gus Dur begins trip to build bridges

The President and Megawati’s national reconciliation efforts take place amid unrest in Bali, Aceh and Sulawesi.

PRESIDENT Abdurrahman Wahid yesterday took the first step to defuse tension in Indonesia, amid growing calls for separation from at least two provinces, by starting a two-day trip through the sprawling archipelago.

The President, who was elected into office last week, was greeted by thousands in the town of Jombang in East Java, where he visited the tombs of his father and grandfather who are remembered in Indonesian history as national heroes.

But observers said his reception in Bali today could be different given two days of rioting there, with personal barbs directed at him after his victory over populist leader and Vice-President Megawati Soekarnoputri, who is very popular in the island.

His advisers said he had been long-scheduled to make the trip to Bali to address a conference there but would use the opportunity to “urge people there not to cause further problems”.

“He wants to build bridges with everyone, especially those who at this point do not want to accept his leadership,” said a friend and senior official of the 30-million-strong Nadhlatul Ulama, which Mr Abdurrahman leads. “He wants them to understand that continued violence will only set back the country further and even tear it apart.”

Ms Megawati is expected to help the President in his endeavour to reconcile the nation by accompanying him to Bali. Analysts said a joint appearance of the Islamic scholar and the secular nationalist leader of the Indonesian Democratic Party – Perjuangan (PDI-P) might quell further violence in the tourist resort but was unlikely to calm tension in regions clamouring for independence.

Yesterday, thousands took to the streets again in the province of Aceh, demanding that the President live up to his pre-election pledge of holding a referendum there.

The new government also faces pressure for independence in South Sulawesi, where thousands demonstrated for a third day yesterday, the Antara national news agency said.

Mr Abdurrahman said that Ms Megawati would be put in charge of addressing sectarian and separatist problems in Ambon, Irian Jaya and Riau provinces.

AFP quoted him as saying “the main thing” was that she would be “dealing with unpleasant sections”.”As for me, I will handle the problems of Aceh, also our economic development and work on food and maritime issues,” he said.

Apart from separatist demands, the partially blind 59-year-old leader and his deputy also have had difficulties forming a Cabinet, given public pressure not to include people who served in the previous regime.

The President has sent mixed signals on the matter. He has vowed to create a broad-based coalition drawn from parties that secured the most votes in the June general election and also from religious and ethnic groups. He has also reportedly said he wanted Cabinet ministers who had links with the Suharto and Habibie governments.

Meanwhile, an economic council has been created under the chairmanship of former cooperatives minister Subiakto Cakrawerdaya, who served under Mr Suharto.

News reports yesterday said the council would formulate macro-economic policies, and review existing presidential policies.

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