Ardila Syakriah, Jakarta – Media personality, prominent critic of the New Order regime and former presidential spokesperson Wimar Witoelar passed away in Jakarta on Wednesday morning at the age of 75.
Wimar succumbed to severe sepsis that caused multiple organ failures after a week of intensive treatment at Pondok Indah Hospital in South Jakarta, according to Erna Indriana, the managing director of the public relations firm he founded, InterMatrix Communications. He was laid to rest at the Tanah Kusir Cemetery in Jakarta on the same day.
Wimar served as the spokesperson of Indonesia's fourth president Abdurrahman Wahid, known as Gus Dur, after years of being a staunch critic of the latter's predecessor Soeharto, who led the authoritarian New Order regime.
Wimar was born in Padalarang, West Java, in July 1945, a month before Indonesia proclaimed its independence. He studied at the Bandung Institute of Technology (ITB) in 1963, where he was heavily involved in student activism as the chair of its student council. He did not complete his studies there and transferred to George Washington University in the United States where he received his MBA in finance and investment in 1975 after earning a bachelor's in electrical engineering and a master's in system analysis.
He returned in 1975 to teach and research at ITB, focusing on management and he was also an adjunct professor in journalism and public relations at Deakin University in Melbourne, Australia. Wimar rose to become a well-known critic of Soeharto, as a result of which he endured political isolation and detention. He launched the Perspektif television talk show in 1994, which was later banned by the Soeharto administration.
He then appeared in the entertainment talk show Selayang Pandang between 1997 and 2000, earning him three national television awards. Wimar was a regular panelist on numerous TV and radio shows and hosted eponymous current affairs programs on various TV stations, such as the weekly Wimar's World on JakTV, Perspektif Wimar on Star-ANTV and Wimar Live on Metro TV.
Wimar was also a columnist for a wide range of foreign and local publications, including The Jakarta Post, where he wrote about politics, the environment and issues surrounding indigenous people. His public relations firm was an advisor to the Indigenous Peoples Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN) and he directly trained AMAN leaders in media communications and public speaking, continuing to lead its events on issues facing indigenous people even after their contract had ended.
In his 2019 piece on land issues for the Post, highlighting the shrinking of civil society as business and government edged closer, he wrote, "The public dialogue is lively because there is a dedicated civil society. They keep the government honest and provide balance to public policies."
AMAN's secretary general Rukka Sombolinggi remembered Wimar as a humble, critical and determined, but humorous, professional, who would still join the commemoration of World International Indigenous People's Day in 2015 at the rocky Batur mountains in Kintamani despite being in a wheelchair.
"The only time I saw him being very serious was the time AMAN met President [Joko 'Jokowi' Widodo] for the first time since his appointment," Rukka said.
Vice President Ma'ruf Amin expressed his condolences on the death of Wimar, whom he described as a good person who was a critic and an idealist.
Presidential chief of staff Moeldoko said that the country had lost a prominent actor of the Reform Era who would fearlessly criticize the New Order regime, while his own office had also lost a fine partner in substantive discussions.
"Today, he passed away, almost coinciding with the commemoration of the Reform Era [and the fall of Soeharto] on May 21," Moeldoko said.
Alissa Wahid, the coordinator of Jaringan Gusdurian and the eldest daughter of the late Gus Dur, took to Twitter to describe how Wimar and her father were both critical and respectful of one another.
"Wimar did not hesitate to question Gus Dur's actions, and Gus Dur did not hesitate to answer him without getting emotional," she said.
Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati recalled on social media her first encounter with Wimar during the early fight of the Reform Era in 1998, when they were frequently in the same forums to raise the important issues of the era. She described Wimar's thoughts that filled the public space as pithy, smart, honest, critical and humorous while still being polite.
"Wimar was someone who deeply cared about Indonesia becoming better, cleaner and more advanced," she said.
Jakarta Governor Anies Baswedan also took to social media to express his deep condolences, saying: "The nation has lost a visionary intellectual".