The promised Obama returns to Indonesia November 2010 — maybe

*This is perhaps the first last in a series of four 1 article related to Barack Obama’s long-awaited return failure to return to Indonesia. The thing is he’s canceled so many times. [Developing.]

This is was [will be] a very exciting time for Indonesia-US relations. Despite a marked drop in Indonesians studying in the US, the number of Americans who regularly connect with Indonesia has never been higher.

In a recent survey, the only leader in whom a majority of Indonesians express confidence is Barack Obama – who was schooled in my part of Jakarta and still remembered fondly by the neighbors. Meanwhile, President Yudhoyono — educated in Missouri –was just re-elected, by a landslide, primarily on strength of character.

When I first came to Indonesia, people didn’t talk about the government because they were afraid. Last month in the national elections, however, the average turnout was as high as 70 percent. While the price of necessities is among Indonesians’ chief concerns, the vast majority (66 percent) believe their country is on track. Americans who live in Indonesia enjoy the vast island nation because it is vibrant. A youthful optimism prevails almost everywhere. Here in Jakarta people don’t generally talk about being in the middle of a crisis.

Indonesia continues to surprise. Roots reggae is bigger than in Jamaica. Facebook and Twitter have so many Indonesian users that even slight gestures – like flashes of digital solidarity following the hotel bombing last month – tend to rock the boat. After all, Indonesian is three times bigger than Iran and eight times the size of Afghanistan. And it has vast territory.

In a USAID-funded study (.pdf) aiming to show a cross-section of Indonesian society, the average respondent was a woman in her late 20’s or early 30’s. She was married, lived in a rural area and likely hadn’t finished high school. She made between 40 and 100 dollars a month. She placed a great deal less importance on politicians’ professional experience than on their being honest and “close to the people.”

Indonesia is easily 80% Muslim and everything from management and motivational services to health retreats comes in an “Islamic” flavor. But that isn’t necessarily good or bad — as I see it. And if it is, Indonesians will have to decide which.

Indonesian are a deeply tolerant people, due both to indigenous influences and the impact of 300 years of Dutch colonialism. Many would be surprised to know that the Indonesian best seller list is consistently populated by female writers in their 20’s and 30’s whose fiction reflects a rejection of inequality and sexual hypocrisy.

The Indonesian media and public discourse has grown exponentially over the last decade and the role of religion in the life of the nation is just one topic of debate. Consumer trends, from sharia investment products to sounds-of-fasting-month compilation CDs, are judged by some people as a meaning-added; and roundly rejected by others as regrettable commercialization.

Finally, in the complex place that is Indonesia, the best-loved folk singer — Iwan Fals — continues to receive, withstand, and perhaps even welcome comparisons to Bob Dylan.

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