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Obama statue controversy not really about Obama

For Rosono Rachmat, every memento marking a personal tie to Barack Obama is a precious thing.

Rachmat, who goes by the nickname Nono, cherishes, for example, an elementary school class picture of himself standing with the wide-eyed boy who grew up to become the president of the United States. He wouldn’t part with that photo for any amount of money, he says.

So Rachmat is baffled by a controversy over a statue erected in a park to commemorate the four years Obama spent here in Indonesia’s capital, where he lived until age 10 and was referred to as Barry.

The 43-inch bronze statue, financed by several of the president’s Indonesian supporters, shows a boy in shorts, T-shirt and sneakers, holding a butterfly in his outstretched hand with the words: “The future belongs to those who believe in the power of their dreams.”

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The statue’s placement here in Menteng Park, near Obama’s childhood home, prompted unexpected opposition in a country where many revere the U.S. president in a rock-star sort of way.

A write-in campaign on Facebook drew more than 50,000 signatures demanding that the statue be removed after a man filed suit in objection.

What the Facebook crowd wanted to know: Why should Indonesians honor a foreign president who lived here briefly four decades ago when there aren’t enough statues honoring true heroes of the world’s most populous Muslim nation?

Not only that, detractors said, Obama had just increased American troop levels in Afghanistan, a fellow Islamic country. What would Obama pull next? they asked.

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Last month, Indonesian authorities relented in response to the negative pressure and moved the statue to the courtyard at the Besuki Public School, which Obama attended for 10 months. Obama also attended a nearby Catholic school.

Aided by the publicity, Besuki became an instant tourist stop for those seeking to trace Obama’s roots here. Even on a recent holiday, when classes were not in session, the parade of visitors ran nonstop all day.

College student Daniel Giovanni posed for a photo along with half a dozen friends. He said he was disappointed that the statue had been moved to a school somewhat off the beaten path. “Less people will be able to see it here,” he said.

Giovanni, 22, a computer student, read aloud an inscription on one side of the statue: “A young boy named Barry played with his mother Ann in [the] Menteng area,” he recited. “He grew up to be the 44th president of the United States and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Barack Obama.”

Ron Mullers, a local businessman who helped raise the $11,000 to erect the statue, said the controversy had little to do with Obama.

“This isn’t about the president at all,” he said. “It’s about honoring a foreigner in a public park. I think that sometimes people are just looking to be anti-something.”

Nonetheless, Mullers said, the school is a better place for the statue.

“Obama’s sister wrote me an e-mail and said he’s just fine with the change of venue,” he said. “In the end, it doesn’t really matter where it is.”

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On a recent rainy afternoon, Rachmat took a moment to appraise its likeness of the boy he knew years ago.

He spoke of his memories of a chubby boy with so much energy that his Boy Scout friends once tied him to a tree.

“He just looked different than the rest of us, his skin color and his hair,” he said. “At that time, it was very unusual for a foreigner to come to an Indonesian school.”

Obama may visit the school and the statue during a scheduled trip here in June. Rachmat says he doesn’t know whether the president will like what he sees.

He looked up at the statue and winced. The face of the boy he knew was much fuller, he said.

He shook his head. “It’s totally different.”

john.glionna@latimes.com

Times Seoul bureau chief Glionna was recently on assignment in Indonesia.


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