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Merrimack Valley

April 27, 2014

Obama becomes first US president to visit Malaysia since Johnson

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia — As the first U.S. president to visit this Muslim-majority nation in nearly five decades, President Barack Obama will talk trade and security issues with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, whom the White House considers a political reformer in a country with a spotty human rights record.

But U.S. officials also hope to strengthen “people-to-people” ties, diplomatic speak for trying to spread goodwill and burnish the U.S. image.

Obama, who spent several years living in neighboring Indonesia as a boy, relied on his family history to perform those tasks yesterday after he was welcomed at a state banquet by King Abdul Halim of Kedah, accompanied by dancers dressed in brightly hued brocade.

Giving a formal toast, Obama recalled his late mother’s fascination with batik, the cloth wraps and shirts traditionally dyed by hand, that are popular across Malaysia and Indonesia.

An anthropologist and teacher, Ann Dunham would come home from markets in Jakarta in the 1970s with her arms full of the intricately patterned fabrics, the president said.

“For my mother, batik wasn’t about fashion,” Obama said. “It was representative of the work and the livelihood of mothers and young women who had painstakingly crafted them. It was a window into the lives of others — their cultures, and their traditions, and their hopes.”

Dunham started micro-financing projects to help the artisans sell batik, according to a catalog written by the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia, which exhibited Dunham’s batik collection in Kuala Lumpur in 2012.

Lyndon B. Johnson was the last U.S. president to visit Malaysia. He came in 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War, when the U.S. wanted to bolster the country’s resistance to the militant communism then sweeping much of Southeast Asia.

Obama aims to highlight Malaysia’s religious diversity and democratic reforms. Roughly two-thirds of Malaysians are Muslim, but the country also has substantial populations of Buddhists, Christians and Hindus.

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