Published: Jul 30, 2007

President Gus Dur's cabinet breaks much new ground. Inside Indonesia highlights eight of its 37 members.

Abdurrahman Wahid (President)

In all that has been written about Indonesia's fourth president, little has been said about one outstanding passion which dramatically distinguishes him from his predecessors, Suharto in particular, namely his long record of support for civil society in Indonesia and internationally. He created space for many community initiatives by lending his name and protecting them from official harassment. These included Infid, a key coalition of over 100 Indonesian and mainly Western NGOs concerned to promote a human rights approach to Indonesia's often repressive development programs. At Infid forums when the prevailing wisdom counselled compromise, it was often Gus Dur who would advocate the bolder course, particularly on human rights. East Timor was no exception. Gus Dur was the first prominent Indonesian to dialogue with Jose Ramos Horta, whom he met in Paris in the early 90s. In a bold move to improve people-to-people relations with Indonesia, Australian NGOs invited a delegation of their Indonesian counterparts to visit in 1987. Anxious about the reception they would get on issues like East Timor, the Indonesian NGOs asked Gus Dur to lead the delegation. As so often happened, he agreed but then had to pull out. But his endorsement was really all that was needed. The visit was a success. Suharto retarded Indonesia's development by repressing civil society. There are good reasons to hope that Indonesian civil society and Australia-Indonesia people to people relations will thrive during Gus Dur's term as president.

Alwi Shihab (Foreign Affairs)

Born in South Sulawesi into a well-to-do family of Arabic descent 53 years ago. He first met Gus Dur three decades ago when they studied Islam together in Cairo, and they have been close friends since. Gus Dur did not finish his degree, but Shihab did - a master's and a PhD, then another master's and PhD in the US, all in religious studies. Taught comparative religion at Temple University and Hartford Seminary in the US from 1993. Has written widely in the Indonesian media on the need for 'active' religious tolerance. After Suharto resigned, Gus Dur asked him to leave academia and support his bid for the presidency. Alwi Shihab spent the next 15 months as perhaps Gus Dur's main political operator. As one of several chairmen of PKB, he worked hard to bring together Megawati's PDI-P and Amien Rais' PAN into a loose reformist alliance. His older brother Quraish Shihab is close to the Suharto family and served as minister of religion in Suharto's last cabinet. Though comfortable in the West, the job of Foreign Minister will be a huge challenge for this gentle religious scholar.

Erna Witoelar (Housing and Regional Development)

One of only two female ministers (the other is Khofifah). Born in South Sulawesi in February 1947. Civil society activist with excellent international contacts. In 1991 she was elected chairperson of The International Organisation of Consumers Unions, the first woman from the developing world to hold this position. Chairperson of the Indonesian environmental umbrella Walhi in the mid-1990s. Indeed Walhi wanted her as environment minister. In 1998 she supported a half-hearted presidential campaign by former Environment Minister Emil Salim. Reportedly refused an invitation to sit on Habibie's cabinet in 1998. In 1999 she represented the general Indonesian movement of non-government organisations to the inter-governmental funding group for Indonesia CGI, to the World Bank, to the UN Development Programme, and as an appointed member to the Consultative Assembly MPR. She was also active in the poll monitoring activities of KIPP. Married to Rachmat Witoelar, former Golkar secretary-general (1988-93) and Indonesian ambassador to Russia, who remains politically active in the National Front (Barnas).

Rear Admiral Freddy Numberi (Administrative Reform)

Born 52 years ago in a village on Serui near Biak, West Papua/ Irian Jaya. Joined the navy in 1968 and became the first Papuan in the armed forces to reach senior officer rank. Is now the first Papuan to become a member of cabinet. In April 1998 he was appointed governor of Irian Jaya. Before that he commanded the naval base in Jayapura that covers Maluku and Irian Jaya. In his brief stint as governor he seemed more often swept along than in charge. No one applauded him when he assured demonstrators in mid-1998 that President Habibie had promised autonomy. On 26 February 1999 Numberi, who had often said how impossible independence was, found himself amid a 100-strong delegation to President Habibie that unanimously demanded independence. Threatened to resign in anger last October when the Interior Minister broke Irian Jaya into three provinces without consulting him. The breakup is widely condemned in Irian Jaya. In cabinet he has the opportunity to become de facto minister for West Papuan affairs as well. It may not be a job he relishes.

Hasballah M Saad (Human Rights)

Born into a poor rice-farming family in Pidie, Aceh, 51 years ago, he taught in an isolated primary school for 7 years before becoming a human rights activist for the next 15 years. He was imprisoned for 15 months in 1978 for criticising Suharto. In 1998 he was among the most outspoken Acehnese demanding the military be held accountable for years of killing and rape. In 1998 he joined Amien Rais' National Mandate Party (PAN) and was elected to parliament in the 1999 elections. He was also a member of the commission that implemented the new electoral system. The creation of his ministry suggests a new seriousness to tackle the cycle of violence of the Suharto era. Hasballah is a strong supporter of a federal structure for Indonesia. He will effectively be the minister for a democratic resolution in Aceh, but his interests extend throughout Indonesia.

Khofifah Indar Parawansa (Women's Affairs)

At 34 the youngest member of cabinet. She was an activist in the NU-related Indonesian Muslim Student Movement (PMII) while studying political science in Surabaya, graduating in 1990. Through the 1992 election she entered parliament (DPR) with the Islamic PPP party. In the March 1998 Consultative Assembly (MPR) session she read a PPP statement critical of President Suharto. When NU activists set up PKB in July 1998 to contest the 1999 election she moved across to that party with Gus Dur's encouragement. She became its main spokesperson on gender and other issues, in the face of religious conservatism even within her own party. At first she supported Megawati rather than Gus Dur for president, partly for feminist reasons, but she admires Gus Dur for his religious tolerance and acceptance of women in leadership roles. Married with three children.

Marzuki Darusman (Attorney General)

Born into a diplomat's family in Bogor, West Java, in 1945. Spent much of his early life overseas, learning fluent English. Graduated in law from a Bandung university. His determined work to build up the credibility of the National Human Rights Commission, which Suharto established in 1993, earned him a well-deserved reputation as a human rights advocate. However, he is just as much a Golkar politician, having sat in parliament since 1977. In the months before the June 1999 election he emerged as the only hope Golkar had of making itself acceptable to the public, but it was not enough. More hopes ride on this attorney general than ever before. He needs to clean up his deeply corrupt department, then prosecute key individuals of the Suharto era for corruption and for human rights abuse. Some fear that, his liberalism and human rights reputation notwithstanding, a lifetime career in Golkar might make it difficult for him to prosecute fellow Golkar members.

Ryaas Rasyid (Regional Autonomy)

Born in South Sulawesi in 1949. Will be the key administrator in this cabinet. His appointment reflects the urgency that the new government places on finding a non-violent resolution to dissatisfaction in regions such as Aceh, Riau, Kalimantan, Ambon and West Papua. Rasyid is a non-party-political bureaucrat highly educated in politics and public administration in the US (Northern Illinois 1988 and Hawaii 1994). With a team of academics he drafted the key legislation for the democratic elections of June 1999 in just a few months, beginning immediately after Suharto resigned. He led a government academy of public administration until appointed to a powerful post overseeing regional autonomy within the Home Ministry in July 1998. From here he also designed new legislation that will bring greater autonomy to regions outside Java, in an attempt to stop them seceding. He says the legislation 'is federalistic in all but name'.

Inside Indonesia 61: Jan - Mar 2000