Sunday, November 23, 2008

Inter-Press Service Quoting DAT

This is an interesting article that tries to get at an important, yet still unclear factor about the international reaction to the election of Pres. Barack Obama -- how will he perceived and what does his election mean for countries around the region? IPS does a good job of pulling out some of those issues in this article. Enjoy -- Phil

Obama Victory Spells Renewed US Interest

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK, Nov 7 (IPS) - In Indonesia, many know him as ‘’Barry’’. To others U.S. president-elect Barack Obama is the ‘’Menteng Kid’’ for the primary school he attended while living in South-east Asia’s largest country.

Indonesia had a little more to celebrate than its neighbours when Obama was declared elected on Tuesday. Among those who rejoiced was Israella Dharmawan, Obama’s teacher during his childhood in central Jakarta.

‘’I remember he once wrote two stories titled ‘My mother, my idol’ and ‘I want to be a president’,’’ she said in a story appearing in Thursday’s ‘Jakarta Post’ newspaper. Obama was six when he came to live in Indonesia in 1967 and lived there for five years with his mother, Ann Dunham, and his Indonesian stepfather, Lolo Soetoro.

‘’I hope to see him become a good president and keep his campaign promises,’’ the former third-grade teacher added of the new U.S. leader who had come across to her as ‘’good, cheerful and easygoing as a young boy’’. ’

For Indonesia there is significance in U.S. voters creating history by voting an African-American to the most powerful job in the world. The possibility of a member of a minority community being elected president remains remote in Indonesia, where the Javanese, the majority ethnic community, hold sway.

‘’This phenomena teaches us all that ethnicity, race and other labels are not important. What matters is our capability,’’ Jusuf Kalla, the country’s vice president, was quoted as having told the Indonesian national news agency Antara following Obama’s victory.

Kalla is a leader of Golkar, the country’s largest political party. But media reports note that the likelihood of him running for president in the 2009 elections are doubtful because of his origins. He is a member of the Bugis ethnic minority from the mountainous island of South Sulawesi.

Obama’s example would not have been lost on Malaysia, Indonesia’s neighbour, where the Malay majority maintains a firm grip on political power at the expense of the country’s minorities, such as ethnic Chinese and Indians.

Even in Singapore -- which has policies to maintain racial harmony -- the political culture favours a member of the dominant Chinese community for the office of prime minister.

‘’The U.S. election could inspire people from minorities in this region to think of what is possible,’’ says Phil Robertson, chairperson of Democrats Abroad Thailand, a group of U.S. citizens living here who campaigned for Obama, the presidential candidate of the Democratic Party.

‘’It could broaden people’s ideas that a person from a minority could rise to the post of political power based on the ideas he or she represents,’’ added Robertson in an interview. ‘’Obama’s victory is an inspirational moment.’’

The widely followed U.S. elections offered other sober lessons too: the gulf between what passes for democracy in this region as against the robust U.S. system.

An official response from the Philippines, a former U.S. colony in the region with a similar polity, said it all. ‘’Our own democracy and electoral process can be enriched by the lessons, model, and example that the last U.S. presidential contest can offer, particularly in terms of the primacy of issues and blueprints of governance, as well as the efficiency and integrity by which the electorate’s will is safeguarded,’’ said Gabriel Claudio, political advisor to the Philippines president, in a statement.

Elections in South-east Asia’s few developing democracies are plagued by fraud, questionable candidates and tension, which, at times, leads to violence before and after the elections. Suppression of the media and stifling of open and free debate also stains this region’s electoral culture.

For the 10-member ASEAN the Obama victory comes after growing concern among the region’s leaders that the George W. Bush administration was losing interest in the regional bloc. While Bush described South-east Asia as the second front in his ‘war against terrorism’ after the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., Washington opted for the bilateral route rather than multilateral measures.

‘’After 9-11 terrorism became the main priority for the Bush administration, it wanted immediate results, which ASEAN is not geared to. Defence is not its strength,’’ Robert Fitts, a former U.S. diplomat who has served in three South-east Asian capitals, told IPS. ‘’So it developed bilateral relations and dealt directly with the defence ministries and the police in the region and spent less energy with a multilateral body like ASEAN.’’

With the Bush doctrine in tatters, a greater engagement with ASEAN is expected, underscoring Obama’s inclination towards multilateralism. ‘’He wants to reinvigorate multilateralism and that includes ASEAN,’’ says Fitts.

ASEAN includes Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Burma, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Brunei.

‘’Obama will create a new impetus for ASEAN-U.S. policy,’’ says Kavi Chongkittavorn, a senior editor and columnist on regional affairs at ‘The Nation’, an English-language daily in Thailand. ‘’Many ASEAN leaders want stronger ties with the new U.S. administration, because they know that they stand to gain more.’’

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