JAKARTA, Indonesia – Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton moved Wednesday to boost U.S. ties with the world’s most populous Muslim nation and its neighbors, pledging a new American willingness to work with and listen to Indonesia and the rest of Southeast Asia.
Her message was received warmly by officials in Jakarta, the childhood home of President Barack Obama, although small and scattered protests were held in several cities, with some Islamic hard-liners setting tires on fire and others throwing shoes at caricatures of Clinton.
She said her choice of Asia for her first overseas trip as Obama’s top diplomat was “no accident” and a sign of the new administration’s desire for broader and deeper relations with the continent on regional and global issues.
Clinton, who arrived from a stop in Japan and will head Thursday to South Korea and China, was particularly effusive about Indonesia, which she said deserved praise for its hard-won multiethnic democracy and efforts to fight terrorism while respecting human rights.
She announced plans to restart Peace Corps programs in Indonesia that were suspended in 1965 when volunteers were expelled after leftists accused them of espionage. And she said the two countries would cooperate on climate change, trade, education, regional security and a host of other issues, while indicating that more development aid was on the way.
“I bring greetings from President Obama, who has himself said and written about the importance of his time here as a young boy,” Clinton told reporters at a news conference with Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirajuda.
“It gave him an insight into not only this diverse and vibrant culture, but also the capacity for people with different backgrounds to live harmoniously together,” she said, noting that Indonesia proves “that Islam, democracy and modernity not only can coexist but thrive together.”
Indonesia, a secular nation of 235 million people, has personal ties for Obama, who spent four years here as a child. Among those who turned out at the airport to welcome Clinton were 44 children from his former elementary school, singing traditional folk songs and waving Indonesian and U.S. flags. She smiled and swayed to the music as they sang.
Wirajuda said Indonesia would welcome a presidential visit from Obama, but neither he nor Clinton would say if an invitation had been extended. “President Obama has a very strong constituency in Indonesia; of course, without the right to vote,” he said.
Another of Clinton’s goals in Indonesia was to show stepped-up U.S. engagement with Southeast Asia in general, stressing the growing importance of a region that often felt slighted by the Bush administration.
She visited the Jakarta-based headquarters of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and said Washington would for the first time begin consideration of signing the bloc’s Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a nonaggression pact.
Clinton said she would attend the group’s annual regional security conference — something former Bush administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice skipped twice during her four years in office.
“It really shows the seriousness of the United States to end its diplomatic absenteeism in the region,” ASEAN Secretary-General Surin Pitsuwan, adding that “the road to reconnecting with the Muslim world” might well run through this region.
Though most of the country’s 190 million Muslims practice a moderate form of the faith, public anger ran high over U.S. policy in the Middle East and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan during the Bush years, fueling a small but increasingly vocal fundamentalist fringe.
The militant group Jemaah Islamiyah has carried out a series of suicide bombings targeting Western interests in Indonesia since 2002, killing more than 240 people, many of them foreign tourists. But experts say a crackdown has severely weakened the movement; the last attack occurred more than three years ago.
Still, security was tight for Clinton’s visit, with 2,800 police deployed in the capital along with members of the army, according to local police.
Witnesses saw scattered protests and at least five people were detained by police following a rowdy rally by 200 Muslim university students in front of the U.S. Embassy. Some protesters set tires on fire on the capital’s outskirts and others screamed “Hillary is terrorist.”
Clinton was dining Wednesday with human rights groups and other civil society members but one prominent moderate Muslim leader, Din Syamsuddin, who heads the 30-million strong Muhammadiyah, told reporters he would reject his invitation.
He questioned the effectiveness of the talks, saying too many people were on the guest list.
During Clinton’s first Asia stop, in Japan, her two days of talks focused mostly on North Korea‘s belligerent rhetoric and threats of a missile test, and on the global financial crisis. After Indonesia, she travels to South Korea and China, where North Korea is again likely to dominate her meetings.
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