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I was there: When Obama returned to Indonesia

A woman and four men, including Barack Obama on the far right, pose for a selfie with a large crowd behind them.
Auskar Surbakti (second from the right) arranged for a selfie to be taken with Barack Obama.

Supplied: Auskar Surbakti

Not many Australians have had the opportunity to introduce a former United States president. But the ABC's Auskar Surbakti recently did just that as co-host at a congress in Indonesia that included a speech by Barack Obama. He shares his "surreal" experience with Australia Plus.

Last week I had the unique opportunity to host the fourth Congress of Indonesian Diaspora in Jakarta, with none other than the former US President, Barack Obama, an experience that's still sinking in.

The Congress of Indonesian Diaspora, or CID, is an annual or bi-annual event that brings together people of Indonesian backgrounds from around the world to celebrate their successes, and provides an opportunity to network with people from a wide range of backgrounds, from government ministers to activists, business people and charity workers, and artists and journalists like me.

It was the brainchild of Dino Patti Djalal, a career diplomat who was Indonesia's Ambassador to the United States and a former presidential spokesman, and it was Dino who managed to secure this year's guest of honour, Barack Obama.

Mr Obama had been holidaying across Indonesia with his family, visiting places such as Bali and Yogyakarta.

His highly-anticipated appearance at CID's opening session came at the end of his Indonesian sojourn and was dubbed his second mudik, or homecoming, by local media — he had lived in Jakarta as a young child and had returned to Indonesia as president in 2010.

But on both occasions, Mr Obama cancelled his trips — the first time was because of his healthcare bill, and the second time he had to deal with the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

When he did eventually make it to Indonesia, I was on assignment elsewhere. But the prospect of actually meeting and speaking with him at CID more than made up for it.

Rehearsals for the event took place the day before, during which I met Mr Djalal. He had invited me to co-host CID with Beverley Gunawan, an Indonesian news anchor with the SCTV network.

Barack Obama stands at a podium on stage in front of the projected logo of the Indonesian Diaspora Network
Barack Obama at the fourth Congress of Indonesian Diaspora in Jakarta.

Supplied: Tri Mulyani Sunarharum

Up until then, I hadn't really had a chance to think about just how significant this event would be, but it all began to feel more real during the run-through (and when I was informed that the Secret Service had vetted me ahead of my arrival!).

Finally, the day of the CID Opening Session arrived. Thousands of people had arrived early to make sure they secured their seats.

The crowd was diverse: from the rich and powerful to ordinary Indonesians and, of course, Indonesian diaspora who had converged on Jakarta from around the globe.

My co-host Beverley and I were pleased to welcome such an enthusiastic audience, who cheered in unison when we mentioned the guest of honour, Barack Hussein Obama.

We were treated to an insightful presentation about the whole CID concept from the founder himself, Mr Djalal, as well as a passionate poem delivered by Indonesia's Foreign Minister, Retno Marsudi.

There were also a couple of musical performances, including a rousing rendition of Indonesia's national anthem, sung by Laya Pesulima, a US-based artist whose father, Broery Pesulima, was a famous Indonesian musician.

Also among the proceedings was a presentation by 27 members of Indonesia's diaspora, each from a different country, speaking the languages of their new homelands.

Then came the moment everyone had been waiting for: we welcomed to the stage Barack Obama.

Everyone in the audience jumped to their feet, cheering and applauding and, of course, taking photos on their phones.

He then reminisced about his childhood in Jakarta, recalling one memory of his home being flooded during heavy rains and having to chase after their chickens, which had fled.

This had everyone in stitches. His speech then took a serious turn.

In what was seen as a thinly-veiled reference to the recent jailing of the former Christian Jakarta Governor, Ahok, Mr Obama urged Indonesians to reject divisive politics based on race and religion, reciting the country's official motto "Bhinneka Tunggal Ika" or "Unity in Diversity".

This was met with rapturous applause (I later learned that the incoming governor Anies Baswedan, who was criticised for riding the wave of racial and religious intolerance to victory, was in the audience).

After a Q&A with Barack Obama, Beverley and I thanked him for his time, after which I plucked up the courage to ask him for a selfie, a la Ellen's famous selfie at the Oscars.

I had worded up Mr Djalal in advance, who loved the idea and even sourced a selfie stick.

Mr Obama kindly obliged and, needless to say, it was the icing on the cake, capping-off such a unique and somewhat surreal opportunity.

Auskar Surbakti is an ABC journalist and presenter for The World on ABC News and Australia Plus television. He travelled courtesy of the Indonesian Diaspora Network.

This article is also available in Indonesian.

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