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Jakarta post

by Jennie S. Bev

Barack Obama is a different kind of president. He is not merely a president per se, as he is also a strong activist and a reformist. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “We are reformers in Spring and Summer, in Autumn and Winter we stand by the old, reformers in the morning, conservers at night.” And like most, if not all reformists, his presence makes many people uncomfortable.

His planned visit Indonesia on March 20-22, 2010, has sparked much debate. For instance, Hizbut Tahrir said it would rally 5,000 supporters to stage a demonstration in Surabaya.

In Serang, Banten province, the Campus Islamic Proselytization Institute has also argued that Obama’s visit would not benefit Indonesian Muslims. It is obvious that hard-line Islamists don’t appreciate Obama’s reformist characteristics.

In a seminar I attended in 2007 at the University of California, Berkeley, Dr. Angus Hawkins of Oxford discussed three types of leader: anchors, fixers and visionaries. An anchor leader brings and maintains balance, and Harold Wilson belongs to this category.

A fixer identifies and fixes problems for workable solutions. Clement Atlee is a fixer. A visionary searches, finds, and provides renewed fundamental principles. Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher belong to this category.

Of those three, Obama belongs to the fixer and visionary categories. And to become a visionary leader, one must possess 3Cs: consensus, charisma, and control. Tony Blair belonged to this category as well. This charming English bloke was as captivating as Obama. And perhaps the latter can learn from his senior on how to be both captivating and practical.

As a fixer and a visionary, Obama is known for his concerns about various issues. After all, his charisma as an activist was what made millions of Americans fall in love with him in the first place.

Thus, it is only reasonable that concerned Indonesians bring up important issues with Obama during his visit. But of course, we should remember that power has limits and he might not feel obliged to put Indonesia on the top of his to-do list due to the current economic crisis and healthcare controversy in the USA.

For instance, as a human rights activist and recently as a housing activist, I have been lobbying the American government at various levels both face-to-face and via correspondence. I recall when Tipper Gore responded to my letter a while ago, which inspired my activism. A recent visit to Congressman Jerry McNerney’s office has been another important milestone in my activism as well.

I sent a letter to Obama urging him to help underwater US communities that have been hard-hit by foreclosures, such as in my hometown, Mountain House, in Northern California. It has been a nagging issue and a forgotten war in the USA, which this year alone will see 1.2 million homes foreclosed due to the deflation of the housing bubble.

Indonesia warrants greater, if not the same level of Obama’s urgent attention as he can be a good catalyst for change. And by “being a catalyst,” we should not expect his direct influence, but more from his ability to bring up issues about Indonesia with the right people and institutions.

In Indonesia, issues urging his attention include: human rights abuses, human and drug trafficking, terrorism, free trade, education and US investment in Indonesia. We might feel a bit “intimidated” about contacting a president, but it shouldn’t be so hard. We can bring issues to US embassy staffers, particularly the communications and politics departments, prior to his visit.

The culture of activism has been growing in Indonesia, but interestingly it is inclined to on-foot demonstrations and rallies instead of lobbying with laser-sharp focus. We should change this by courageously creating a culture of face-to-face and correspondence lobbying.

Speaking from experience, American government officials answer any pleading letters sent to them. If it is in alignment with their platforms, they are likely to respond enthusiastically and either invite constituents to a meeting or a series of follow-up meetings.

The late Democratic congressman Tom Lantos who was a holocaust survivor, for instance, was very concerned about human rights issues in Indonesia, and he called me personally whenever he saw an important event that I should be aware of.

It is time to be our own activists and advocates, even our own citizen diplomats. Every single one of us is an agent of change. And while Barack is visiting his old kampung in Menteng, we should grab this rare opportunity to capture his attention with a lot of class and clarity.[]

The Jakarta Post, March 15, 2010

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