For Indonesians, Obama's Visit Is Long Overdue

President Obama arrived in Indonesia on Tuesday, the second stop on a tour of Asia. He marveled at the changes that Jakarta has undergone in the 40 years since he lived there as a schoolboy. The president got a welcome that was warmer and more emotional than another U.S. president might expect to receive, but cooler than if he had come at the height of his popularity, and without canceling two previous visits.

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President Obama arrived in Indonesia today, the second stop on his tour of Asia. He is scheduled to stay less than 24 hours before going on to South Korea. In Jakarta, Mr. Obama marveled at the changes the city has undergone in the 40 years since he lived there as a schoolboy. For many Indonesians, this visit is long overdue. The White House has canceled two previously announced trips to the region.

But, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Jakarta, President Obama still got a warm and emotional welcome.

(Soundbite of singing)

ANTHONY KUHN: In recent days, students at the Menteng State Elementary School have been singing songs about a kid known to his classmates as Barry. In the schoolyard there's a bronze statue of the 10-year-old Barry Obama with a butterfly perched on his outstretched hand. Eza(ph) is a spunky fourth grader, who, like many Indonesians, goes by one name, speaks on behalf of his giggling classmates.

EZA: The school is proud because Obama become president.

KUHN: For 64-year-old Turdi(ph), the presidential visit opens a floodgate of memories. Turdi remembers cooking the oxtail soup and satay skewers that he says young Barry loved to eat.

TURDI: (Through translator) I used to work at Barry's house when he was a child. I used to cook and baby-sit for him. I feel very proud to see that he is now the president of a superpower. I understand he's a very busy man now and I won't get to meet him. But I'm just satisfied that he has come back for a visit.

KUHN: At a party for Obama fans this evening, his homeroom teacher, Afendi(ph), proudly displayed pictures of his star pupil.

AFENDI: (Through translator) What I remember most about him was his creativity and diligence. He often volunteered to erase the blackboard because he was so tall. And he was very inquisitive, asking lots of questions on every subject.

KUHN: Also at the party was artist Damien Dematra. He produced a recent film, "The Kid From Menteng," a semi-fictional account of Obama's childhood days in Jakarta. Dematra says he hopes President Obama's experience will inspire Indonesian youth.

Mr. DAMIEN DEMATRA (Filmmaker, "The Kid From Menteng"): If I can come up with two words then dream (unintelligible) is the two words that will come. I believe that the kids in Indonesia, they need to start dreaming. Most of the Indonesian kids, they believe in accepting things, you know. Living by your fate. That if your fate is to be poor, then let it be.

KUHN: Dematra adds that President Obama demonstrated his commitment to pluralism through his stance on two issues of concern to Indonesian Muslims. The Qur'an burning Florida pastor, Terry Jones, and the planned Islamic center at Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan.

Mr. DEMATRA: And we write letters to him and then he reacted to that. So, for us Indonesians, we're very thankful.

KUHN: Not all Indonesians are swooning at the president's arrival. Ismail Yusanto is an activist with Hibu Tahrir, an Islamist group that organized protests against the visit. Yusanto doesn't believe the president's overtures to Muslims, including a planned speech at the national mosque tomorrow, represent any change in U.S. policies.

Mr. ISMAIL YUSANTO (Activist, Hibu Tahrir): For us it's nothing. Obama, you know, he is trying to attract a Muslim world that he really want to put new relationship between U.S. and Muslim world, based on mutual respect, as he mentioned, but according us, this only lip service.

KUHN: Yusanto says Indonesians should lose their romantic notions of the president's visit. Many folks here have already done that after President Obama canceled previous visits. And analysts note, U.S.-Indonesia ties have developed pretty well recently, even without the visits.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Jakarta.

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