JAKARTA (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton held up Indonesia on Wednesday as proof that modernity and Islam can coexist as she visited the country where U.S. President Barack Obama spent four years as a boy.
Clinton’s 24-hour stay in the world’s most populous Muslim nation underlined Obama’s desire to forge a better relationship with the Islamic world, where his predecessor George W. Bush’s policies were deeply unpopular, notably the invasion of Iraq.
Clinton, on her first trip as secretary of state, said she wanted to deepen cooperation between the two countries on counterterrorism, climate change and security.
“As I travel around the world over the next years, I will be saying to people: if you want to know whether Islam, democracy, modernity and women’s rights can co-exist, go to Indonesia,” she said at a dinner with civil society activists.
Clinton basked in Obama’s popularity in Indonesia at every stop during her day, which included talks with the Indonesian foreign minister and a visit to the Jakarta headquarters of the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
Obama spent four years in Indonesia after his American mother, Ann Dunham, married Indonesian Lolo Soetoro following the end of her marriage to Obama’s Kenyan father.
Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda said Indonesia shared the United States’ “joy” at Obama’s election and he wanted Clinton to go back and tell the U.S. president “we cannot wait too long” for a visit.
Playing on Obama’s Indonesian ties, about 50 schoolchildren from the U.S. president’s old school waved U.S. and Indonesian flags and sang folk songs to Clinton on the tarmac after she landed at an airport in the suburbs of Jakarta.
Although Clinton got a generally warm welcome, about 100 Muslim students, some chanting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), held a protest rally at Jakarta’s presidential palace, some throwing shoes at a picture of Clinton.
While most Indonesian Muslims are moderate, the country has a radical fringe and has suffered from sporadic bombings in recent years. More than 200 people, many of them foreigners, were killed when Islamist militants bombed tourist areas of the island of Bali in 2002.
Police have deployed 2,800 officers in the capital for Clinton’s visit, part of a week-long trip that began in Tokyo and will include stops in Seoul and Beijing.
On Thursday Clinton will meet Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, who seeking is a second term this year and is keen to showcase Indonesia’s stability since its transformation from an autocracy under former President Suharto — who was forced to resign in 1998 — to a vibrant democracy.
At ASEAN, which critics often dismiss as a toothless talk shop, Clinton said Washington would study whether to join its Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a step short of membership but that could signal stronger U.S. ties with Southeast Asia.
“Your visit shows the seriousness of the United States to end its diplomatic absenteeism in the region,” ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuan said after welcoming Clinton to the group’s headquarters.
Seeking closer ties with ASEAN could be a tactic by the new U.S. administration to try to exert influence over Myanmar, which has been ruled by a military junta for decades.
Clinton, who this week said Washington was reviewing its Myanmar policy and hinted it may drop some sanctions, admitted U.S. policy has had no effect on Myanmar’s government.
“Clearly, the path we have taken in imposing sanctions has not influenced the Burmese junta,” she told reporters at the news conference with Wirajuda, referring to the country by its British colonial name. “”But ...reaching out and trying to engage them hasn’t influenced them either,” she said.
Clinton also announced the U.S. Peace Corps would be negotiating to resume volunteer work in Indonesia, four decades after it left the country during the turbulent 1960s.
(Additional reporting by Sunanda Creagh, Olivia Rondonuwu and Telly Nathalia)
Writing by Arshad Mohammed and Ed Davies; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Angus MacSwan