ad info

 web features
 magazine archive
 customer service
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia

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?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

NOVEMBER 5, 1999 VOL. 25 NO. 44

Unity in Diversity?
Maybe the all-inclusive new government will work. It had better

"Just call me Gus Dur" was among the first directives issued by Indonesia's freshly elected chief executive. Abdurrahman Wahid prefers to eat with his hands, pad about in bare feet, and be addressed by the familiar name by which millions know him. The presidential palace's starchy protocol officers might have to get used to his informality - just as Indonesians are settling into the idea that the moderate Muslim leader is now their fourth, but first freely chosen, president.

On Oct. 21 Wahid passed the first test of his administration: the election of the vice president. By maneuvering to get top popular vote-getter Megawati Sukarnoputri to become his deputy, he calmed the riots unleashed by her embittered nationalist and non-Muslim supporters across Java, Bali and the city of Medan in North Sumatra. Five days later, he faced his second challenge: naming a new cabinet. The roster of ministers must rebuild a country nearly as shattered as it was at the beginning of Suharto's New Order, or even since Independence. But the choices tell more about Wahid's beliefs in pluralism than about the nation's prospects for economic recovery.

Indonesia: Unity in Diversity?
Maybe the all-inclusive new government will work. It had better
Call 'Em Wahidisms Quotations: The world according to Gus Dur
Is He Strong Enough? Wahid's health raises concerns
The Fight for Megawati Behind the scenes of the V.P. election
'East Timor Is a Tough Job' Australia's Downer on relations with Asia

ASEAN: An Indochinese Caucus After a conclave in Vientiane, fears of a split

Malaysia: Now, the Sinatra Principle 'We all did it our own way,' croons Mahathir
The Maps to Power Voting districts lay a confusing quilt
Trial by Dirt Anwar's claims fill the court and the media

The Philippines: 'My Ratings Are Down!' Estrada is moving into damage control

Viewpoint: Beyond Groundhog Day Is this Pyongyang's last chance to end the false starts?

Cover: Maneuvering to the Top
In a dramatic twist, Abdurrahman Wahid becomes Indonesia's leader. Can he rule?

Indonesia: The Road To Rejection The events surrounding Habibie's fall

Battle For Balance Wahid's mediation allowed the Big Three to bridge basic differences

East Timor: 'This Was Systematic' In East Timor, a trail of death and destruction

Breaking news from Southeast Asia

The 35-member cabinet, which draws figures from the main political parties and the military, primarily pays back the debts he owes to those who elected him, and disappoints those who thought he would make a cleaner break with the past. (One newly appointed minister agrees that it could be called "a thank-you cabinet.") But its ethnic and political diversity also reveal Wahid's higher goal. He is setting out to close the yawning divisions among regions, ideologies, groups and religions that have opened up in Indonesia since the last days of Suharto. For him, his National Unity Cabinet is just the beginning.

From now on, Suharto-era aides will rub shoulders with strident government critics in the weekly cabinet meetings. Cadres from the old ruling party Golkar and military generals will confer with former oppositionists from Megawati's Indonesian Democratic Party of Struggle (PDI-P in Indonesian), Wahid's National Awakening Party (PKB) and modernist Muslim leader Amien Rais's National Mandate Party (PAN). Proponents of political Islam will sit side-by-side with non-Muslims and diehard nationalists. The seats of power, long monopolized by Javanese, now hold more Sumatrans as well as citizens from far-flung eastern Indonesia. Trouble is, the cabinet's all-inclusive nature could also prove highly divisive.

Wahid's inclination toward balance shows up in his military-related appointments. For the first time, a civilian, former academic Juwono Sudarsono holds the defense portfolio, replacing military chief Gen. Wiranto, who took up another ministerial post. Among Juwono's responsibilities will be the administration of the police, which has separated from the rest of the Indonesian armed forces (known as TNI) and is under the defense ministry. TNI itself will be led by a navy officer, Adm. Widodo Adi Sutjipto, instead of an army four-star general. Wahid says he intends to focus TNI on guarding the archipelago's vast maritime areas and airspace - a clear departure from the 32-year bias shown toward the army by Suharto, himself a former general.

The reorientation is a sensible policy for a country two-thirds covered by water. It also reinforces Wahid's concern for territorial integrity, clearly reflected in his cabinet's ethnic diversity and the extra tasks he has assigned himself and Megawati. An Acehnese holds a newly created human-rights portfolio, while the native-born governor of Irian Jaya gets to oversee reform in the bureaucracy. (At midnight the day before, after party leaders had left him, Wahid remembered there was no representative from Indonesia's largest and easternmost province and thus gave the reform job to Freddy Numberi.) Days before the announcement of his cabinet, Wahid declared that he had asked Megawati to handle separatist and communal sentiment in Riau, Maluku and Irian Jaya, while he would personally handle restive Aceh.

The new cabinet "reflects at least the serious concerns of the new leadership over national unity," says political scientist Soedjati Djiwandono. "Whether these good things will bring us closer to the ideals of unity, whether it will continue with reform, is another matter." Just as unclear is the new cabinet's ability to manage the economy. In another departure from Suharto, who stacked his cabinets with economics doctorates, Wahid seems to have chosen his economic team largely on the basis of political diversity. So, aside from the appointment of Chinese Indonesian economist Kwik Kian Gie, a senior PDI-P leader, as the top economy minister, the matches between jobs and their holders are filled with surprises.

The critical finance portfolio went to a little-known accounting PhD from Jogjakarta's Gadjah Mada University named Bambang Sudibyo, who had headed PAN's economic research unit and was championed by Rais. Businessman Jusuf Kalla, a Golkar member, snagged the key trade and industry ministry. Former Citibank executive and PDI-P treasurer Laksamana Sukardi finds himself in charge of state enterprises and investment. Wahid also dropped the respected Kuntoro Mangkusubroto as mines and energy minister in favor of the military's Lt.-Gen. Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. Wahid is forming a small National Economic Council. How the council's duties will be related to those of the economic ministers is uncertain. In fact, many of Wahid's portfolios seem vague or likely to overlap with one another. He has set up a department for "social problems," and aside from the interior minister, there is also a state minister for regional autonomy and one for regional development.

"I am quite concerned about the economic ability of this team," says Raden Pardede, senior economist at Jakarta's Danareksa Securities. So was the market. Both the stock exchange index and the rupiah rate remained fairly flat after the cabinet was announced, reflecting concerns that Wahid had subsumed economic direction to political interest. If national unity is under threat, the economy is under as much or even greater pressure. Indonesia's foreign debt stands at 120% of GDP. Recapitalizing banks may cost 70% of GDP. Inflation is currently quiet, but so is economic expansion. One estimate posits the economy has to grow at least 3% a year to absorb the new labor entering the workforce.

Man For All Seasons
• Name: Abdurrahman Wahid a.k.a. Gus Dur

• Born: Aug. 4, 1940, near Jombang, East Java.

• Background: Attended Dutch elementary school, East Java pesantrens (traditional religious schools), Al-Azhar University in Cairo, then Islamic University of Baghdad, but didn't graduate. Married to Siti Nuriah; they have four daughters. Hails from a prominent family of religious leaders (his grandfather helped found influential Muslim mass organization Nahdlatul Ulama, and his father was Indonesia's first minister of religion). Became chairman of NU in 1984.

• Personality and interests: Folksy, witty, charmingly direct, excellent public speaker. Soccer fan and foreign film buff (spent most of his time in Cairo in the student organization and watching movies). Prefers to go barefoot or in slippers as shoes give him corns, he says.

• Political strengths: Mediator, able to stay above the fray. Respected by majority, defender of minorities. Possesses courage to stand up against prevailing political mores and practices for his beliefs. Open to listening to all parties and interests. Brilliant visionary and strategist. Stays his own course.

• Political weaknesses: Health. Debts to parties that put him in power. Perception of being unpredictable, inconsistent and erratic. Poor manager in NU. His economic schemes (setting up a string of rural banks, buying into a failing mortgage bank) all ended up badly.

The new "compromise cabinet" has accomplished at least one laudable goal: its inclusiveness and symbolic breadth have brought relief to many Indonesians, who were once threatened by the rising rivalries among ideological camps and parties. "I feel more comfortable with Indonesia today than I was two weeks ago," says telecom entrepreneur Adi Adiwoso. But he would feel even better if experienced economic managers and thinkers were brought in, even at lower levels, "to beef up the political astuteness of the compromise." For one thing, a real economic team would help secure the rupiah rate, and make planning for business and investment easier. So far Wahid has not indicated any deviation from the free-market approach advocated by multilateral organizations. He confirmed as much in a speech to an international conference: "We have to live with a free, open international trade system where companies are motivated by profits."

Yet he is short on specifics. Economics or efficient management have never been Wahid's strong suits. Rather, developing a plural and democratic Indonesia while maintaining its national integrity is his life-long obsession. "He is the point of contact among the many kinds of differences that exist and are developing in Indonesian society," says Al-Zastrouw Ngatawi, who has written a book on Wahid. To defend his universalism, he has taken disparate positions, championing one group at one time, moving to the other side at the next necessary opportunity. In being open to all, he hopes to encourage tolerance and, in the long run, a more democratic society. What vexed Wahid throughout Suharto's rule was that state institutions, from the legislature to the judiciary, were democratic only on paper. "He considers this democracy as procedural or formal," says Zastrouw. "But a democratic mentality has not yet been awakened."

Faced with extremes, Wahid always chooses moderation. He has thus adopted an approach that is both conciliatory and gradual. Which explains why, in his cabinet, six serving or retired military officers won ministerial positions - more than what radical reformists would have preferred but certainly fewer than the case under Suharto. The military is already beating a retreat from the legislature as well as from positions in the bureaucracy. Under new rules, the generals in the cabinet have to become civilians. Wahid has accepted the continuation of the military's dual-function role in politics for another six years, but no longer. "Don't think the military are crazy," he has said. "They are responsible. They know society is changing." His tolerant attitude also hints at how he might handle former president Suharto. He, alone among the Big Three reform leaders including Megawati and Rais, has maintained links with the former ruling family. Instead of a drawn-out investigation, Wahid favors a cash deal: part of the Suharto wealth (to buy basic goods for Indonesians) in exchange for forgiveness. (Wahid's new attorney-general, Marzuki Darusman, holds a different opinion. On Oct. 27 he decided to reopen the Suharto case.)

Can such advanced philosophy work in the brute world of politics? Wahid has his work cut out for him. The presidential elections were bruising. He jumped from Megawati's nationalist side to become the winning candidate of political Islam, and then re-allied himself with her to help her gain the vice presidency. A confidant quotes him saying: "To pick a political stand doesn't have to destroy individual relations." That may be true for him; it is less clear whether Megawati or Rais (who coordinated Wahid's victory and Megawati's defeat) subscribe to the same vision. The chill that has settled between the vice president and the chairman of the People's Consultative Assembly has yet to thaw. Wahid presided over dealings among nationalist, Islamic and "status quo" camps in forming the cabinet. What would all sides do if he were not around to be the mediator? There are also considerable concerns about the influence of political operators and vested interests on his government.

Wahid will extend to foreign relations his model of playing all sides. During an Oct. 22 meeting with ASEAN envoys to Jakarta, he repeated his intention to make his first state visit to China. (At the same time, the first foreign ambassador he met was the U.S. one - at Wahid's invitation.) He is planning a whirlwind tour of Asia in November. He has also discussed opening up trade relations with Israel, and extended an olive branch to East Timor by declaring that if its leader Xanana Gusmao visited Jakarta, he and Megawati would personally fetch him from the airport.

Make no mistake: Wahid's goals are colossal. He wants to establish a democratic spirit in society, return legitimacy to government institutions and reunite the fractious archipelago. His friends have faith he can do what he has set out to accomplish. "It is not an easy task for a man of his age and who is not very strong physically - although mentally alert and spiritually one of the best people I know," says Thai human-rights advocate Sulak Sivaraksa. "I have every confidence in him." Suharto thought economic development preceded democratic institution-building. With his cabinet, Gus Dur seeks to reverse the old general's (New) order. In its past two years of turmoil, Indonesia has flirted with all sorts of economic solutions. Now, finally, seems the time to experiment with democracy and unity.

- With bureau reporting

This edition's table of contents | Asiaweek home


Quick Scroll: More stories and related stories
Asiaweek Newsmap: Get the week's leading news stories, by region, from Newsmap


U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

Thai party announces first coalition partner


COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state


COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness

Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN

Back to the top   © 2000 Asiaweek. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.