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Waiting for Obama

The nation prepares for Obama’s long-delayed visit by cracking down on militants, including shooting a $10 million terrorist. The president ignores Parliamentary orders to investigate two reformers, who immediately return to reforming. And all of Bali falls silent for a day.


Top News: The wait is over. President Barack Obama of the United States is almost definitely coming this time. After more than a year of rumors, at least one cancellation and several delays, the man many in Indonesia see as their own will finally reach Jakarta on March 23.

A homecoming of sorts, the president had planned to bring Michelle Obama and the daughters. But the all important health care reform bill delayed his trip several days and now the women of the family will have to wait to see the place Obama lived for four years as a child.

The two-day visit, which comes between day trips to Guam and Australia, will be another opportunity for Obama to address the Muslim world. Obama is scheduled to make a speech on the 24th billed as a follow-up to his speech in Cairo last year, which was aimed at repairing the fractured relationship between Islam and the West.

Obama and Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono are also expected to sign a comprehensive partnership agreement that covers major issues like climate change, the economy, terrorism and development. Strategically, the American contingent is looking to reassert itself in a region increasingly dominated by China. On the heels of an ASEAN free trade agreement, China recently surpassed the United States as Indonesia’s number two trading partner, behind Japan.

Indonesian security forces have been frantically preparing for the visit, securing the capital and cracking down on Islamic radical activity. In a series of sweeps beginning in February, Indonesian counterterrorism forces have so far captured or killed 40 suspected Islamic militants across the country.

Among those killed was Dulmatin, who police shot outside a small house on the outskirts of Jakarta. Police believe Dulmatin, one of the region’s most wanted terrorists who the United States had offered a bounty of $10 million to capture, set and triggered one of the Bali nightclub bombs that killed more than 200 people in 2002.

Although a major victory for Indonesian counterterrorism efforts, the fact that Dulmatin managed to reenter the country from the Philippines, where he had been hiding among the Islamist separatist group Abu Sayyaf since 2003, raised questions about the country’s border security.

Some analysts are further concerned that other high-profile Islamic militants returned alongside Dulmatin. At the Jakarta house where police killed Dulmatin, investigators found three remote detonators and bomb-making instructions. Police, however, said there was no evidence indicating an attack planned for Obama’s visit.

Money: Although several rogue elements of Yudhoyono’s parliamentary coalition continue to kick up dirt over the bailout of Bank Century, it appears the country’s two most-respected financial reformers will keep their jobs. Investors everywhere are sighing with relief.

A dramatic parliamentary vote on March 3 called for a criminal investigation into Finance Minister Sri Mulyani and Vice-President Boediono, formerly the governor of Bank Indonesia, for their decision to bailout the small, troubled bank. But with no power to force an investigation, Yudhoyono veered from his usually conciliatory nature and publically defended the pair in his strongest language yet and refused to follow parliament’s lead.

Two weeks later and the reformers are back at it. Boediono announced he will head a special committee to spearhead much-needed bureaucratic reform and Mulyani has stepped up her campaign against tax-evaders. Changes to land acquisition laws are also in the works, which should help spur infrastructure projects. All of this is good news for a country that, by some estimates, is only one year away from joining BRIC, the powerful group of fast-growing emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, India and China.

After a tumultuous start to Yudhoyono’s second term, his administration now appears to be moving in lockstep like never before. Gita Wirjawan, in charge of the country’s investment board, also announced an ambitious plan to encourage Foreign Direct Investment, which he says is crucial to sustaining the country’s economic growth, now one of best-performing in the world.

Elsewhere: The resort island of Bali fell silent March 16 in celebration of Nyepi, the day before the Hindu New Year. A distinctly Balinese tradition, the entire island, including tens of thousands of tourists, stay indoors and refrain from using electricity, speaking and in some cases eating as they reflect on the past and coming years. The Bali international airport closes for 24 hours.

Meanwhile, in Jakarta, the cultural cacophony remains even as residents get the day off. In my neighborhood the local Mosque inexplicably sounded for most of the afternoon while dozens of children playing soccer in the street repeatedly screamed, “goooooal!”

Is there anywhere on Earth more diverse than Indonesia?