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January 28, 2009

Indonesia and the Inauguration

Tom McLaughlin

Bali, Indonesia – Four factors influenced my desire to forego watching the inauguration of President Barack Obama with fellow Americans here in Kuta Beach. I did not seek out places that Americans congregate, nor the American Consulate.


In 2002 and 2005 the area was struck by terrorists. In the first, 202 westerners were killed and 209 injured. The second saw 20 people killed and 129 injured. This was in the heart of Kuta and at the height of the tourist season.


In November 2008, three terrorists were executed for the killings. Indonesian troops were placed on full alert in case of reprisals.


Finally, the Israeli attack on Gaza could have added motivation for another strike. Each incident, by itself, probably would not have been impetus for a further attack.


It was because of the four above reasons that Americans did not gather together in Bali, as they did in other parts of the world and Indonesia. They were damn good reasons.


They were enough concern for Christine and me to stay in our hotel room and watch the inauguration via satellite. To you out there who are fathers of daughters, you understand every effort is made to keep them out of harms way. My feelings are no different.


We did attempt to find other Americans, maybe one or two, to join us for a quiet celebration but none were to be had. Most of the tourists were from Australia, Holland and Germany. We did not meet one single Yankee during our entire trip.


It was not hard to single us out as Americans. All we had to do was to say a few words. Since I speak Malay and Indonesian, it further set us apart.


President Obama was on everybody’s mind. They all asked me if I supported him. As readers of know, I worked for the campaign. One person told me not to worry as we would be protected from any problems. From whom or from what I never did learn, nor did I ask. I am guessing the combination of speaking Indonesian and the willingness to admit I supported President Obama in this Muslim land held quite a bit of weight. But, I will never know.


Don’t get me wrong. I was never afraid to be among these wonderful people, to admit I was an American and supported President Obama. However, I didn’t broadcast it. To be honest, there was wariness, a feeling of trepidation and a small amount of anxiety.


In Indonesia, Barry Obama – they call him Barry here – is treated like a local boy. He spent his first four years in an Indonesian school, the rich and high tuition International school most western youths attend. He is remembered as a tall lanky youth who towered over his classmates, spoke the language, played with other Indonesians and was exposed to the dire poverty of the area.


What did Barry take from his first four years of education and from this experience to make him the first Indonesian head of state? What do any of us remember from grades 1-4? An impossible question to answer.


The swearing in and the speech were broadcast over local television from Jakarta. Attempts were made to translate to Indonesian, but it was difficult because many things he said were understandable only by Americans. “”With hope and virtue let us brave once more the icy currents and endure what storms may come” does not translate well to people who live in the tropics and haven’t a clue about “icy currents.”


I doubt many people saw the speech because it was 1 A.M. here and just a few hours from the first Muslim call to prayer. Most locals I talked to received the information from the morning papers. Radio Television Malaysia did rebroadcast the speech stopping in parts to discuss the particular sections.


The English language daily, The Jakarta Post, cobbled together reports from various wire services. “Time for Change” was the banner headline. Another was the “World greets Obama with jubilation and worry” from the French news agency Agence France-Presse.


Christine and I will forever remember this inauguration as we clapped together many times during the speech in that darkened hotel room. We will remember the possibly unfounded fears. I will remember the guy who told me I would have no problems.


(Editor’s note: Tom, traveling with his daughter, Christine, did not have access to the Internet and was unable to forward his column about the inauguration earlier.)


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