A “deeply moved” Barack Obama dodged volcanic ash and made a whirlwind return to his boyhood home of Indonesia on Tuesday, saying he would never have believed he could come back as US president.
Obama marvelled at the transformation of the sleepy city of Jakarta he once knew into a bustling metropolis and noted the country’s parallel evolution from authoritarianism to democracy and a burgeoning alliance with Washington.
“It’s wonderful to be here although I have to tell you that when you visit a place that you spent time in as a child, as the president it’s a little disorientating,” he told reporters.
“The landscape has changed completely, when I first came here it was in 1967 and people were on becaks … a bicycle rickshaw thing.”
Obama raced into Indonesia ahead of a cloud of volcanic ash spewing from Mount Merapi in central Java which has played havoc with commercial aviation traffic in recent days.
But he was forced to cut back his twice-postponed homecoming and will leave nearly two hours ahead of schedule on Wednesday, amid concerns that Air Force One would otherwise be grounded by the plume of ash.
Indonesia was the second stop on Obama’s Asia tour, after India, and he will travel on to South Korea for the G20 summit on Wednesday and end his trip in Yokohama, Japan for the APEC summit.
Obama will visit Jakarta’s Istiqlal Mosque, Southeast Asia’s largest, and give a major speech on US-Indonesian relations, partly targeted at Muslims, in a follow-up to his speech to believers from Cairo in 2009.
In Jakarta he admitted the task he set in that speech of forging a “new beginning” with Islam remained incomplete and there was “a lot more work to do”.
“We don’t expect that we are going to completely eliminate some of the misunderstandings and mistrust that have developed over a long period of time, but we do think that we’re on the right path,” he told reporters at a joint press conference with Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
Obama also criticised Israel’s decision to build 1,300 new settler homes in east Jerusalem, warning it risked wrecking an already frail peace process with the Palestinians.
“This kind of activity is never helpful when it comes to peace negotiations,” he said.
“I’m concerned that we’re not seeing each side make the extra effort to get a breakthrough that could finally create a framework for a secure Israel living side-by-side in peace with a sovereign Palestine.”
Obama touched on his likely theme for the G20 meeting in Seoul, repeating the US mantra that the world economic crisis has been exacerbated by “huge imbalances when it comes to surpluses and deficits”.
In what will almost certainly be seen as a reference to China, which the US says is keeping the yuan artificially low, he said: “You’re seeing some countries run up very big surpluses and intervening significantly in the currency markets to maintain their advantage when it comes to their currency.”
He said it would be better if “there was a more balanced programme in which the surplus countries were focused on internal demand, there was a more market-based approach to the currencies, and the deficit countries thereby were able to export more.”
Yudhoyono said the Indonesia and the US had sealed a “comprehensive partnership” agreement designed to boost ties across economic and other fields, including “security and democratisation”.
Obama said he was “deeply moved” after Indonesia awarded a posthumous medal to honor his late mother Stanley Ann Dunham, who spent years in Indonesia studying microfinance and seeking to empower women.
“I am proud and humbled to accept this award on behalf of my mother.
“The fact you would chose to recognise my mother in this way speaks to the bonds she forged over many years with the people of this magnificent country,” he said.
Security was beefed up for the visit in a country that in recent years has seen a number of deadly terror attacks, with about 8,500 security personnel, including the military, deployed in strategic locations across Jakarta.
US officials said that, as with Obama’s trip to India, his visit to Indonesia is designed to reinvigorate relations with an “inspiring” emerging democracy and one of the fastest-growing economies in the world.
Obama’s speech Wednesday aims to engage Indonesians in their embrace of democracy and the free market following the fall of the Suharto dictatorship in 1999, as well as following on from the Cairo address.
An embarrassed Obama cancelled two previous attempts to visit Indonesia earlier this year as domestic crises intervened in the US, and his curtailed visit may disappoint his hosts.
Mount Merapi continued to belch debris and clouds some 430 kilometres (270 miles) to the east. So far 151 people have died since it began its latest cycle of eruptions on October 26, and more than 300,000 have fled their homes.