Obama returns to childhood home Indonesia


JAKARTA: US President Barack Obama finally made a much-delayed return to his boyhood home of Indonesia 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.