Indonesia awaits Obama homecoming

November 9, 2010 12:00 am

, ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE, Nov 9 – US President Barack Obama makes a much-delayed homecoming of sorts to Indonesia on Tuesday, seeking to engage Muslims and cement strategic relations on the second leg of his Asia tour.

Obama is flying from India, the world\’s largest democracy, to Indonesia, its most populous Muslim-majority nation, mixing diplomatic symbolism with a search for new export markets to boost the lagging US recovery and jobs growth.

The president will return as an adoptive favourite son, after spending four years in Indonesia as a boy with his late mother, though he will have little time for tourism in the middle of a nine-day, four-nation tour of Asia.

Obama, whom Indonesians remember as "Barry", will hold talks and share an official dinner with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, with economic and security issues topping the agenda.

The next day, Obama will visit the Istiqlal Mosque, Southeast Asia\’s largest, and leverage his popularity with an open-air speech to the Indonesian people.

About 8,500 security personnel, including the military, will be on the streets of Jakarta for Obama\’s visit to a country that has fallen victim to a number of deadly terror attacks in recent years.

"\’Barry\’ to Return Home," trumpeted The Jakarta Post newspaper, while the Koran Tempo declared: "Finally He\’s Here."

US officials say that, just as with Obama\’s trip to India, his visit to Indonesia is designed to reinvigorate relations with an "inspiring" emerging democracy and an economy with a key role to play in the early 21st century.

"We\’ve had this focus on Asia and on emerging powers and on democracies as kind of cornerstones of the kind of strategic orientation of the United States in the 21st century," said Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security adviser and Obama speechwriter.

"India fits firmly in that category and so does Indonesia."

Obama\’s Jakarta speech on Wednesday has the twin aims of engaging Indonesians on their embrace of democracy and economic growth, and of renewing dialogue with Muslims opened at his landmark Cairo address last year.

An embarrassed Obama cancelled two previous attempts to visit Indonesia earlier this year, as domestic crises intervened, and his snatched day in the country where he lived for four years as a boy may disappoint his hosts.

Originally, Obama planned to show his family fondly remembered haunts of his youth, but given his diminished political standing following mid-term elections a prolonged wallow in nostalgia abroad would be a political step too far.

However, the White House has hinted there will be more time for Obama to go down memory lane next year, when he is expected in Indonesia as the first US president to join the East Asia summit.

That may give a chance for Obama\’s daughters, Malia and Sasha, currently back at school in the United States, to join the parents on a family vacation.

For a few days this week, it seemed Obama\’s visit could be in doubt again, after a volcanic ash cloud thrown up by Mount Merapi raised fears that Air Force One would be unable to reach Jakarta.

But international flights returned to normal on Tuesday and the White House gave the green light for the visit.

Obama\’s speech will mark his most high profile chance for discourse on US relations with the Islamic world in a foreign country since his landmark speech to the world\’s Muslims in the Egyptian capital in June 2009.

But officials cautioned against the idea that Obama needed to renew his commitment for a "new beginning" with Islam, after a furore over plans to build an Islamic cultural centre near the site of the September 11 attacks in New York. Focus: Weakened Obama tested on global stage


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