The bronze statue of a 10-year-old Barack Obama, shod in sneakers and holding aloft a butterfly, quickly turned into a tourist attraction. Foreigners flocked to the public park in Jakarta to honor the U.S. President, who lived four years of his childhood in the Indonesian capital. Locals visited, too, but they weren't as pleased. "Indonesians mostly came to protest," says park groundskeeper Yunus. "They didn't want the statue here." Less than three months after a local Obama fan club raised $10,000 for the monument, it was quietly moved in February to a nearby school where Obama had studied. "I'm not against Obama," says Protus Tanuhandaru, one of the Indonesian founders of a Facebook page that collected nearly 60,000 fans calling for the figure's removal. "But it's wrong to have a statue in a public park of someone who has contributed nothing to Indonesia."
For a man who calls himself "America's first Pacific President," Obama's planned visit to Indonesia is being heralded as a homecoming. Millions of Indonesians consider Barry Soetoro, as he was once known by his Indonesian stepfather's surname, an honorary citizen. But even as Obama takes a trip down memory lane (followed by a visit to Australia), the fate of his boyhood likeness underscores his, and America's, growing image problem across Asia. Soon after Jakarta city workers used the cover of darkness to relocate the young Barry's statue, top U.S. diplomatic envoys were in Beijing to repair foundering relations with the world's third largest economy. Meanwhile, Japan, the world's No. 2 economy, has been calling for a more "equal" (read: less submissive) relationship with the U.S. That's because the Democratic Party of Japan, which came to power last year for only the second time in half a century, won votes by pledging to break with past governments that hewed too closely to American foreign policy.
A New Asia
Asia's increasingly assertive leaders are demanding that the U.S. recognize the continent's growing economic and geopolitical clout. Many feel that Obama, despite his personal ties to Asia, isn't giving the region the respect it feels it merits. An editorial in the Bangkok Post the leading English-language daily in Thailand, a nation that is usually dependably pro-American summed up the prevailing sentiment: "Mr. Obama's promises about restoring U.S. interest in Asia ... have proved so far to be more talk than substance."
Asia matters for America. China is the third biggest consumer of American goods, after Canada and Mexico. The No. 4 spot belongs to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 10-nation bloc that was founded, with American prodding, as a bulwark against communism in the 1960s. China's economic resilience (8.7% GDP growth in 2009) helped the U.S. and other developed nations avoid even worse pain from the global financial crisis. The only other major economies that posted decent growth in an otherwise dismal year? India and Indonesia. Asia, in other words, thinks it is shoring up the global economy and it wants its efforts appreciated.
Obama has spoken persuasively about Asia's significance. Last November, on his first visit to the continent as President, Obama vowed to address a perception that the George W. Bush Administration had overlooked Washington's Pacific allies. "I want every American to know that we have a stake in the future of this region," Obama said in Tokyo, "because what happens here has a direct effect on our lives at home." But since then the Obama Administration has dropped the ball on promoting U.S.-Asia trade, neglecting to implement regional free-trade pacts. "We do hope that [Obama's Asia visit] will not be like Santa Claus coming and just giving a few gifts and then flying away," says Thailand's Deputy Commerce Minister Alongkorn Ponlaboot, who has criticized what many Asians perceive as American protectionism. "Because what we need from America is conviction and sincerity that translate into real action."
Why Indonesia Matters
Indonesia deserves just that. Obama's trip is crucial for introducing Americans to a country that may not evoke much beyond earthquakes and tsunamis but is nevertheless key to U.S. interests. A 17,000-island archipelago, Indonesia boasts the world's biggest Muslim population. It is also the world's third largest democracy (after India and the U.S.), proving that Islam need not be the enemy of political freedom. Back when Obama lived in Jakarta, where his American mother was an anthropologist and aid worker, Indonesia was ruled by a dictator and mired in poverty. Today, it is a proud member of the G-20 club of wealthiest economies. While much of Indonesia is still poor (18% live under the poverty line), the country is finally using the profits from its plentiful natural resources, such as natural gas and a horde of minerals, to lift up its citizens. "Foreigners used to think of Indonesia as a place of natural disasters," says Gita Wirjawan, the head of the nation's investment board, who earlier this year traveled to the U.S. to drum up interest in his homeland. "But now they realize that this is a $550 billion economy that's on an upward trajectory."
That's partly because Indonesia has done well fighting terrorism. Most Indonesians practice a syncretic, moderate form of Islam. Yet a small band of homegrown extremists is waging a bloody jihad. A string of bombing campaigns, striking everywhere from Jakarta to the holiday isle of Bali, has claimed hundreds of foreign and local lives over the past eight years. Just weeks before Obama was due in Indonesia, police shot dead at an Internet café outside Jakarta a man believed to have orchestrated the 2002 bombings of two Bali nightclubs. Indonesia's efforts to counter its terror threat so far it has had impressive success in netting hundreds of suspected extremists and re-educating youths susceptible to the call of militant clerics can provide the world lessons on how to excise the cancer of religiously inspired violence from the Islamic faith.
There's no question that orthodox dogma is gaining sway in Indonesia, like elsewhere in the Muslim world. In Jakarta, for instance, the number of women wearing headscarves has increased dramatically compared to a decade ago. As local governments have gained more autonomy, some have implemented a variety of Islamic-based legislation ranging from enforced Koran literacy for Muslim children to the as-yet-unenforced stoning to death for adultery despite the fact that Indonesia is officially a secular nation. At Menteng Elementary School where Obama once studied, the principal and many teachers wear veils. The Muslim prayer room in the public school is much larger than it was when Obama attended classes there.