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'Obamamania' Wanes in Indonesia

Friday, 05 Nov 2010 07:00 AM

President Barack Obama, Jakarta's most famous former resident, can expect a warm welcome when he visits next week, but his popularity is waning -- at least if the career trajectory of his local impersonator is any guide.

Ilham Anas, whose white-toothed grin and prominent ears help make him look eerily like Obama, was omnipresent on television and advertisements two years ago promoting everything from phonecards to waffles. Now, he is nowhere to be seen.

"This year, it's definitely not like it was at the beginning," Anas told Reuters. "I still get jobs but most of them are overseas."

Indonesians initially embraced Obama like a long-lost son -- he lived in Jakarta as a child and his stepfather was a Javanese Muslim -- but 'Obamamania' is on the decline in Indonesia as elsewhere around the world.

Two previous planned visits to Indonesia were cancelled at the last moment, further dampening enthusiasm this time around.

"Is he really coming this time? Can we believe it?" said Peter Leri, a Jakarta singer. "We were disappointed he didn't come last time."

A statue of Obama as a young boy was removed from a central Jakarta park in February after a Facebook campaign by Indonesians who argued he had not done enough to deserve the tribute. It now stands in the Jakarta school he attended as a boy.


In general, he is still much-loved compared to his predecessor George W. Bush, who was seen by many in the majority Muslim nation as antagonistic toward Islam.

"Obama has tried harder than Bush to promote world harmony, so he is better than his predecessor," said Jakarta motorbike courier, Nurhadi.

Wahyu Slamet, a small entrepreneur living in the central Java city of Semarang, said: "I think Obama is one of the few international figures or U.S. presidents who are widely accepted in Indonesia. It's not only because he has lived here, but his policies positively influence relations between East and West."

Still, many Indonesian Muslims are disappointed U.S. troops are still in Afghanistan and see no real change in U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

When Israel attacked a flotilla of ships carrying humanitarian aid to Gaza in May, thousands of Indonesians protested outside the U.S. embassy in Jakarta, bringing traffic in the city centre to a standstill.

"Early on, Obama gave a speech in Egypt saying he wanted to embrace the Islamic world," the chief of the Indonesian Ulema Council, Cholil Ridwan, told Reuters.

"The speech was good but was it lip service or his true feelings? He should reduce U.S. aid to Israel to show he is not supporting Israeli imperialism and human rights abuses. But as far as we know, the U.S. is still sending weapons to Israel."

Many Indonesians share a perception that there has been a gap between what Obama's rise to power seemed to promise, and what he has been able to deliver.

"He has struggled to control his government and his agenda so he hasn't succeeded in everything," said Olivia Tobing, a property agent in central Jakarta.

For mimic Anas, the halcyon days may be over but there is still money to be made in impersonating Obama.

"I am doing a film in Malaysia soon. I still get some advertising jobs," he said. "But internationally, Obama's name is on the downturn. For Indonesians, though, he is probably still the best U.S. president since Kennedy, because he is the only one who is seen as close to Indonesia and Muslims."

(Additional reporting by Renjani Puspo Sari; Editing by Andrew Marshall)

© 2015 Thomson/Reuters. All rights reserved.

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