Thursday, November 11, 2010

Presence Obama at Indonesia, not just to eat meatballs

The US President, Barack Obama, landed in his boyhood home Jakarta last night to woo a country that has been transformed in the 40 years since he left but remains dogged by old problems of human rights abuses and corruption.

Mr Obama focused overwhelmingly on the positives during his 24-hour visit to Indonesia, including on its remarkable emergence as a democracy, moderate brand of Islam, tolerance of other religions and potential as an economic dynamo.

At a joint news conference with the Indonesian President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, he heralded a ''comprehensive partnership' ' between the US and Indonesia.

Mr Obama said the Indonesia he has seen on his return bears little similarity to the country where he lived from the age of six to 10. Mr Obama said it was ''wonderful to be here'' but confessed it was ''barely recognisable' '. The bicycle rickshaws and bemo taxis were no longer around and the city's one mall he remembered was now dwarfed by skyscrapers.

Underpinning Mr Obama's charm offensive is the belief that Indonesia will prove a valuable ally to the US in the region amid China's impressive rise.

Earlier Ben Rhodes, Mr Obama's deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, said in Delhi: ''We see in Indonesia the intersection of a lot of key American interests and we see this as a partnership that is very important to the future of American interests in Asia and the world.''

After his inauguration Mr Obama referred to himself as the ''Pacific president'' and in his 10-day swing through Asia he is spending time in the region's four leading democracies.

When Mr Obama lived in Jakarta with his anthropologist mother, Ann Dunham, and his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, Indonesia was a dictatorship under Suharto, having just emerged from the US-supported purge of communists that led to the deaths of at least 500,000 people. Suharto was toppled in 1998.

Mr Obama was to attend a state dinner where he was to be served some of his favourite childhood dishes, nasi goreng (fried rice) and bakso (meatball soup). Today he will visit the country's largest mosque, Istiqlal, and will make a keynote address at the University of Indonesia.

The White House had hoped to arrange a mass event in Jakarta's Merdeka Square where millions could have attended. But Indonesian authorities scotched those plans for security reasons and even moved the university address to a smaller venue.

Mr Obama was twice forced to cancel visits to Indonesia and this trip is much shorter than the three-day tour originally planned.

Jakarta Post's senior editor, Endy Bayuni, said the cancelled visits had subdued euphoria over Mr Obama but Indonesia and the US had the same broad strategic interests.

''Indonesia wants a deeper and broader relationship and that's what the signing of the comprehensive partnership will bring,'' he said. ''We have common concerns about the rise of China. That's why Indonesia was so supportive of the US joining the East Asia Summit.''

But corruption and human rights abuses continue to make headlines and Mr Obama's arrival coincided with protests over abuses by security forces.

The controversy over a video depicting the torture of detainees in Papua has undermined the government's boast to be a regional leader on human rights.

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