Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Obama is in town

“Terima kasih untuk bakso, nasi goreng, emping, krupuk. Semuanya enak!” Those were the words of a US president in Indonesian, thanking his host after being served with delicacies he used to love as a young boy living here in the city.

In what many Indonesians saw as a homecoming visit on Tuesday, Barack Obama was generally welcomed with warmth and a sense of kinship by those who met him and those watching him on TV, or even just listening to his voice on the radio.

Reflecting on the four years he spent here as a child back in the 1960s, Obama said Jakarta had changed so much.

“I barely recognize the city… Sarinah used to be the tallest building and now it is one of the shorter buildings on the road,” he said. Visiting the city as the US president was disorienting, Obama added.

“The landscape has changed completely since I was here in 1967. I remember people on becak — bicycle rickshaw things — or bemo, which were sort of like taxis… Now, as president, I can’t see the traffic. The streets are blocked,” he said, followed by laughter from a crowd of officials and reporters.

Obama said it was “wonderful” to be back in Indonesia with first lady Michelle Obama and that he pondered returning to Indonesia with his two daughters to visit the country’s cultural sites.

Nostalgia aside, Obama’s visit is a realization of his promise to repair the US’ tarnished image through a foreign policy that relies more on the country’s soft power in engaging with the Muslim world.

In a press conference held after a bilateral meeting with Indonesian counterpart President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Obama said that focusing solely on security issues would not help the US achieve the aim of ending mistrust with Muslim countries.

“We don’t expect to completely eliminate misunderstanding and mistrust that we’ve developed over a long period of time, but we do think that we’re on the right path.”

He also took the time to criticize Israel’s plans to build new apartments in disputed East Jerusalem. “This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations,” Obama said.

Today, Obama is scheduled to visit the Istiqlal Mosque, the largest in Southeast Asia, where he will meet clerics to exchange views on the peaceful teaching of Islam.

“I think broadening the relationship strengthens it, to build trust, build more people-to-people contact, that will be good for our security,” he added.

Obama cited the US’ recent organizing of an entrepreneur summit in Washington involving young business leaders from a number of Muslim countries, as well as the US’ relationship with Indonesia, which has just entered a new stage with the launch of the Comprehensive Partnership between the US and Indonesia that touches on more than just economic and security issues.

Obama said he was not happy that the US was Indonesia’s third-largest trading and investment partner.
“I’ve informed [Yudhoyono] that we don’t like to be No. 3. We want to be No. 1,” he said.

Another area in the partnership, he said, was to improve the people-to-people partnership, particularly the cooperation and exchanges between US and Indonesian students and universities. For this purpose, Obama is scheduled to visit the University of Indonesia today to deliver a lecture.

“The third element in our Comprehensive Partnership is to deepen our political and security cooperation.”

He said this included the “already strong cooperation” between Indonesia and the US in terrorism and piracy prevention and the US’ partnering with Indonesia in East Asia, in which he look forward to Indonesia’s leadership as chair of ASEAN and to returning to Jakarta next year for the East Asia Summit.

At a dinner banquet hosted by Yudhoyono at the State Palace, Obama said that, although different, Indonesia and the US shared many similarities that served as common grounds for stronger bonds, including the struggle for independence and democratic movements.

“Like bamboo on the riverbank, we have to rely on each other. No country is an island, even those made of thousands of islands,” Obama said.

[original news and photos: via The Jakarta Post]

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