US President Barack Obama finally made a much-delayed return to his boyhood home of Indonesia on Tuesday, seeking to engage Muslims and cement strategic relations on the second leg of his Asia tour.
Obama arrived in Jakarta under stormy skies on Air Force One from India, as his nine-day Asian odyssey took him from the world’s largest democracy to its most populous Muslim-majority nation.
The president spent four years in Indonesia as a boy with his late mother, but he will have little time for tourism on the 24-hour visit which will focus on improving ties with the Muslim world and courting opportunities for US companies.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that volcanic ash spewing from Mount Merapi in central Java could force Obama to make the whirlwind trip even shorter, but said a speech scheduled for Wednesday would still take place.
Jakarta was a leafy backwater still dotted with rice paddies when Obama last set foot in the city 39 years ago. Now it is traffic-snarled metropolis whose population swells up to 20 million people with its daily intake of commuters.
But Obama’s old schoolmates say they clearly remember the chubby boy they called “Barry”.
“I believe that he still remembers us although we haven’t met for about forty years,” one classmate, Sonni Gondokusumo, 49, told AFP.
Obama showed off some of his Indonesian language skills when he asked Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa “apa kabar?”, or “how are you?”, as he greeted officials at the airport.
As lightning forked across the sky, his motorcade cut a swathe through Jakarta’s notorious traffic as he headed to the palace and into talks with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, expected to focus on security and economic issues.
“It’s great to be here. It’s wonderful to see you all,” Obama told assembled dignitaries, before entering the palace where he sat to sign a visitor’s book.
The next day, Obama is scheduled to visit the Istiqlal Mosque, Southeast Asia’s largest, and leverage his popularity with an open-air speech to the Indonesia’s 240 million people, some 200 million of whom are Muslim.
Security has been beefed up in a country that has fallen victim to a number of deadly terror attacks in recent years, with about 8,500 security personnel, including the military, deployed in strategic locations across Jakarta.
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.
Indonesia is Southeast Asia’s biggest economy and is seen as a key strategic partner for the United States as it faces 21st-century challenges like the rise of China and the threat of radical Islam.
“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,” Obama speechwriter Ben Rhodes said.
“India fits firmly in that category and so does Indonesia.”
Obama’s speech on Wednesday has the twin aims of engaging Indonesians on their embrace of democracy and the free market following the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1999, 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 had planned to show his family fondly remembered haunts of his youth, but given his diminished political standing following mid-term elections a wallow in nostalgia abroad would be a political step too far.
For a few days this week, it seemed Obama’s visit could be in doubt again, after Mount Merapi spewed ash high into the skies and raised fears that Air Force One would be unable to land in Jakarta.
But international flights to the city returned to normal on Tuesday, even as the volcano continued to belch debris and deadly gas some 430 kilometres (270 miles) to the east.
A total of 151 people have lost their lives since Merapi began its latest cycle of eruptions on October 26, and more than 300,000 have been forced to flee their homes.
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