Obama’s Snub? No Problem


The draft beer at the Obama Bar, nestled in Jakarta’s backpackers’ quarter of Jalan Jaksa, seemed a little less cold during the weekend. And the plaster statue of the US president sitting in a pedicab inside one of the city’s high-end malls had fewer people lining up to snap photos with their cell phones.

It’s safe to say that Jakarta, and likely the rest of the country too, is mildly disappointed that Barack Obama postponed a highly-anticipated state visit that was due to begin today because of a crucial final vote on healthcare reform back in the United States.

And they have some cause to be, after all: Obama spent nearly four years in Jakarta as a child in the late 1960s, giving Indonesia bragging rights over the then-schoolboy still often known here simply as ‘Barry.’

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But the key word is mildly. Millions of Indonesians woke up and went to work as usual, the Jakarta Composite Index—Asia’s second-best performing index in 2009—opened as usual, as did some of the world’s largest gold, coal, and copper mines, palm oil plantations.

In short, life goes on for a country that’s going places. Indonesians are by nature gracious and hospitable, but even more than that they’re extremely patient.

‘It’s OK, it’s OK that’s he’s not coming yet,’ says Eko, a doorman at Obama Bar, a combination sports bar and pick-up joint that opened just over a week ago. ‘Obama is good.’

For sure, when Obama does finally make it here (the visit has been rescheduled for June), the trip promises to be a love fest, given his popularity here. It also promises to be high on symbolism and atmospherics. The Indonesian media has dubbed the visit a ‘pulang kampung,’ or a village homecoming. Local TV stations are salivating at the thought of filming Obama showing his daughters the neighbourhoods where he kicked footballs and chased chickens with his local friends.

But there’ll be more than just symbolism. Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono are set to sign a comprehensive partnership agreement between their countries covering security, education, trade and investment, climate change, health and numerous other issues. The agreement is one of the results of US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s highly successful trip to Indonesia and three other Asian nations shortly after assuming the post in January 2009.

‘The first thing to do is to separate the Obama visit from the partnership, even though they’re linked,’ says Donald K. Emmerson, an Indonesia expert from Stanford University in California. ‘Obama will announce it when he’s [in Jakarta], but the partnership will have a far greater impact than the visit.’

US presidents get around, though this will be the first time one has gone to a developing country where he lived as a child. But what’s important about Obama’s visit, at least to Indonesians, is that it will to them be affirmation of the country’s transformation from an authoritarian Asian backwater under the late dictator Suharto to a stable emerging democracy, all in just over a decade. Indonesia is also the largest Muslim-majority nation in the world, something frequently pointed out by the United States.

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