An opportunity to reconnect in Indonesia

By Chico Harlan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, November 9, 2010; A04

JAKARTA, INDONESIA - During its two-year wait for a visit from President Obama, Indonesia found other ways to celebrate the country's most famous former resident. Indonesian authors produced dozens of Obama books, one of them 5,400 pages long. A look-alike starred in a commercial for heartburn medication. About 12,000 Indonesians applied for a 14-day Obama-centric vacation package, with chances to meet Obama's former barber and gym teacher - all while television cameras followed the action, filming a reality show.

Obama's arrival Tuesday in Jakarta, then, restores a bit of authenticity to a relationship that has grown increasingly complex and outdated, held together by boyhood ties but not presidential ones.

Indonesia's post-inauguration euphoria, heavy on rhetoric about hope and change that mirrored Obama's own, has yet to turn into disillusionment. Rather, Indonesians talk about Obama as they might talk about a family member who has grown distant. There is mild criticism, easy forgiveness and a yearning for a stronger connection.

Obama's election spurred dreams of U.S. reconciliation with Muslim-majority nations. Yet even moderate Islamic groups here lament Obama's perceived lack of urgency in Middle East peace talks and consider the detente half-done. After proclaiming himself America's first Pacific president, Obama hindered outreach efforts by canceling earlier visits to his boyhood home - first when pushing for the health-care overhaul, later when tending to the gushing oil in the Gulf of Mexico.

Obama spent four years of his childhood in this nation of 17,000 islands and 300 languages. It was in Jakarta that he survived chickenpox, tried dog meat, learned to box and saw that while his own life was comfortable, many others' were not.

This time around, Indonesia is a young democracy, no longer an authoritarian state, and Obama will stay for less than 24 hours. He will meet with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. He will tour the country's largest mosque. He will deliver an outdoor speech, emphasizing a political partnership with the country.

"We hope there will be reference to that kind of theme of how Islam, democracy, tolerance and modernity - that all these qualities can go hand-in-hand," Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa said this week in an interview at the ministry. "Indonesia has the world's largest Muslim population - bigger than the entire Middle East combined. But a defining fact, as well, is that at the same time we are not an Islamic country. We respect all religions as being equal. We do not apply the sharia law."

Emphasis on religion

Eleven time zones removed from the trenches of U.S. domestic politics, Indonesia receives only a partial picture of the Obama presidency. Obama's health-care bill, for instance, became common knowledge here only when it delayed his March trip to Jakarta. Even Obama's former classmates and far-flung relatives, speaking in recent interviews, noted that Indonesia has its own domestic disasters - tsunamis, volcanoes, plodding relief efforts - to worry about.

To judge Obama, then, Indonesians emphasize religious issues. They applauded in August when he backed plans for a mosque near Ground Zero in New York. They sighed with relief in September when he urged a Florida pastor to abandon his Koran-burning campaign, with Natalegawa calling it a "much appreciated" intervention. They wonder, too, whether Obama's recent call for an "independent, sovereign state of Palestine" will yield further action.

Before Obama's inauguration, Indonesia viewed the United States mostly as a target for protest. Hard-liners viewed the George W. Bush administration's antiterrorism efforts as a proxy for anti-Muslim feelings. U.S. outreach to Southeast Asia virtually stopped, with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice twice skipping meetings of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. In advance of Bush's 2006 visit to Indonesia, Muslim and nationalist groups called on Jakarta to cancel the trip. One Indonesian mystic slit the throats of a black crow, a snake and a goat, then drank a potion of the blood; he said it would jinx Bush's trip.

Obama's personal ties to Indonesia quickly dissolved the hostility. In 2008 and 2009, according to recent data from the Pew Research Center, the U.S. favorability rating in Indonesia jumped from 37 to 63 percent. Among Muslim-majority nations, according to the same survey, only Nigeria and Indonesia have a positive view of the United States. Even so, 56 percent of Indonesians disapprove of Obama's handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The solution of the Palestine problem is key to many problems between the West and the Muslim world," said Masdar Mas'udi, deputy chairman of Indonesia's largest Islamic group. "Our hope as Muslims to Obama and the U.S. is not unreasonable: If the Palestine problem could be resolved, it would be more than enough."

The Obama administration has become increasingly solicitous of Indonesia, viewing it as a key counterbalance to an emboldened China. U.S. officials laud the 86 percent Muslim country as a template for moderate Islam, adept at weakening the extremist groups that launched high-profile attacks on tourist sites, embassies and hotels in 2002 to 2005. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton visited Indonesia as part of her first overseas trip, which officials here interpreted as a sign of newfound priorities.

Still, given the midterm elections setback, the earlier canceled visits and ongoing natural disasters here, Obama will receive a "lukewarm" reception, said Ulil Abshar Abdalla at Jakarta's Freedom Institute think tank. But he also will find a country where cynicism hasn't yet eroded belief in Obama's capacity to influence.

'Golden Ticket' winners

In February, the U.S. Embassy here created a contest allowing three people the chance to retrace Obama's footsteps, with travels to Hawaii, Chicago and Washington. Roughly 12,000 people wrote brief essays, vouching for their worthiness. Embassy officials whittled the list to 1,000, giving them a multiple-choice test on Obama trivia. The final 10 contestants then performed on an "American Idol"-style television show, "Obama Golden Ticket," which aired in advance of the canceled June trip.

And the 14-day Obamamania experience was aired, too, as a reality show - just in time for the president's arrival.

While traveling through America from Sept. 17 to Oct. 3, the three "Golden Ticket" winners received an exhaustive tour through Obama's past, visiting not just the houses were he lived and the buildings where he taught law, but also the Baskin-Robbins where he once scooped ice cream and the bluff in Hawaii over which the ashes of Obama's mother were scattered.

All the while, one of the winners, Baban Sarbana, an author of nonfiction, took more than 1,000 photos. He spent the evening hours crafting blog entries.

Back in Jakarta, Sarbana, 35, can detail the nuances of Obama's biography: the location of his first kiss; his favorite ice cream flavor. But the source of some Americans' disenchantment with the president that he witnessed on the trip remains murkier and will not be featured prominently in his upcoming book - a compendium of his blog entries.

"Until now, I'm not finding anything wrong about his policies," Sarbana said. "A lot of Indonesians are really in love with him and care about Obama, so we feel very close to him. We focus on his kindness. We don't focus on his mistakes. If you love somebody as a person, you'll look for the good side of him."

Special correspondent Karima Anjani contributed to this report.

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