Jakarta: US President Barack Obama Tuesday made a much-anticipated return to Indonesia, a country where he spent part of his childhood.
Obama, who had twice cancelled trips to Indonesia this year because of domestic concerns, said it was “wonderful” to return to the country he described as “a genuine democracy”.
“I have to tell you that when you visit a place that you spent time in as a child, as president, it’s a little disorienting,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
He said the sights and sounds were familiar even though the landscape of Jakarta had completely changed with the mushrooming of gleaming skyscrapers.
“But today as president I’m here to focus not on the past, but on the future,” Obama said, adding that he and Yudhoyono had agreed to a comprehensive partnership to bring the countries closer together.
Yudhoyono said the partnership was aimed at improving trade and investment as well cooperation in the areas of climate change, environment and security, including the fight against terrorism.
“We made an emphasize on cooperation in counter-terrorism because terrorism is the enemy of every nation,” he said.
“We strongly hope that with this partnership we can look to the future and contribute to peace and security as well as economic progress both at the regional and international levels,” he said.
Yudhoyono said the US was Indonesia’s third-largest trade partner, with total trade amounting $21 billion in 2008, and third largest investor.
Obama opened his address to the press by saying the Indonesian greeting “Selamat sore” (Good evening) and ended it with “Assalamualaikum”, Arabic for “Peace be with you”.
Many Indonesians fondly call Obama “Anak Menteng”, or “Menteng Kid”, after a Jakarta neighbourhood where he lived from 1967 to 1971 after his mother married an Indonesian.
A group calling itself Friends of Obama hosted a “homecoming” party Tuesday for Obama, known among his childhood friends in Jakarta as Barry.
A replica of a statue of Obama as a 10-year-old was to be displayed at the event. The original is located at Obama’s former elementary school in Menteng.
Before Obama’s arrival, many Indonesians had wondered if he would ever make a visit following two cancellations.
“We were very enthusiastic to welcome Obama, and his cancellations deeply disappointed us,” school principal Hasimah, who like many Indonesians goes by one name, was quoted as saying by the Antara news agency.
During his brief visit, Obama was scheduled Wednesday to visit Indonesia’s largest mosque, Istiqlal, as part of his efforts to engage Muslims.
He was also to deliver a speech at the University of Indonesia.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters that Obama was likely to cut short the visit because ash from Merapi volcano, which has been erupting since last month, could disrupt air traffic.
But he said the White House hoped the speech would still occur.
Defence Minister Purnomo Yusgiantoro has said his ministry was seeking wide-ranging defence cooperation with the US, including training of officers and military financing.
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates announced in July during a visit to Jakarta that the US was lifting a decade-old ban on cooperation with the Indonesian army’s Kopassus special forces.
The ban was put in place over alleged human rights abuses by the unit.
Obama arrived in Indonesia earlier Tuesday following a tour of India, the first stop in a 10-day tour of Asia. He is also due to attend the Group of 20 summit of the world’s biggest economies in South Korea and the Asia-Pacific economic meeting in Japan.