As part of our series on President Obama’s education and past, we interviewed Barack Obama’s first ever principal, Father Bart Janssen. Our freelance correspondent, Charles C. Johnson, went all the way to Indonesia to find out more about Obama’s past.
Editor's note: Writer Charles C. Johnson will joined TheBlaze Editor-in-Chief Scott Baker to talk about this story on today's BlazeCast:
Enrollment documents viewed by TheBlaze confirm that a young Barack Obama was listed as an Indonesian citizen and a Muslim on school registration in the 1960s. And while the document has been reported on before, albeit lightly, TheBlaze has compiled the most complete view thus far of the document and the circumstances surrounding it – including an interview with the president’s first-ever principal while he was in Indonesia.
TheBlaze repeatedly photographed the document in the office of the current headmaster of Santo Fransiskus Assisis, a Catholic school that Obama attended from January 1968 to December 1970 in Jakarta. The record shows that Obama (or his parents) – at least for the period of his life – claimed to be an Indonesian citizen, that he took the last name Soetoro (the last name of his step-father, Lolo), that his religion was listed as Islam, and that he was born in Honolulu.
A picture of Obama's school registration at the Santo Fransiskus Assisis school in Jakarta, Indonesia. The first line notes his name, the second line shows where he was born, the third line notes his citizenship, and the sixth line shows religious affiliation. (Photo: Charles Johnson/TheBlaze)
Fastforward: Why the School Obama Attended After St. Fransiskus Is Just as Important
While Obama’s time at Santo Fransiskus is important (and we’ll explore it in more detail shortly), it’s just as crucial to fastforward to when Obama left the school.
According to records at Santo Fransiskus Assisis, Obama left after 1970 because his family moved. That move was due to Lolo leaving Dinas Topografi, a mapmaking survey company that contracted with the Indonesian army—which is listed in the document we viewed—to join Union Oil where he became a well-connected government liaison officer.
That job came with perks, among them access to some of the best schools for young Barry Soetoro. That’s evident by the young Obama attending Besuki School, one of the three best public schools in Indonesia, after leaving St. Fransiskus. Besuki School is the sort of place the connected send their children when they are not already sending them to the pricy international school. (This is an important detail because once Obama’s mother, Ann Dunham, got a job working for the Ford Foundation in 1980, and after she had divorced Lolo Soetoro, she began sending her daughter, Maya, to Jakarta International School.)
In a taped interview in Indonesian and subsequent email with Akhmad Solikhin, Besuki’s current principal, he told my Indonesian translator and me that, other than Obama, there has only been one non-Indonesian at the school—a Dutch student. That’s not surprising considering Besuki School, founded in 1934, was formerly Carpentier Alting Stichting Nassau School -- a school run and controlled by the Dutch for the Dutch colonialists and the Indonesian elite. In 1962 -- before Obama attended in 1970 -- it was taken over by the Indonesian government. Besuki was then and is now a prestigious place where potential students sit on waitlists. In fact, in 2007 Besuki began using a mandatory admissions test to try and cut down on the number of Indonesian children trying to get in.
Why is this all important? Because given that history, it doesn’t seem likely that the school would have wasted one of their prized seats on a student not claiming to be Indonesian, especially when it was the sort of place that educated the children of government officials and the well-to-do.
Could Obama Have Gone to a Public Indonesian School Without Claiming to Be a Citizen?
Thanks to the political instability in Indonesia that took place between 1965-1967, public records for the 1960s are spotty, at best, for all levels of government. Only the Catholic school Obama attended – St. Fransiskus -- had any records to speak of regarding claims of citizenship.
Nevertheless, my Indonesian-born translator and I were able to speak with several government officials about the policy governing adoptions and foreign nationals attending public school. Was it possible that Obama could have gotten into Indonesian public schools without claiming to be an Indonesian citizen?
“It is extremely rare that non-Indonesians go to Indonesian public school,” Liperty Marpaum told us. He is a staff member of the department of Law & Labor (Hukum & Pegawaian), which handles education policies for the Indonesian government. Foreigners must apply and ask permission for the department of education before they may enroll and even must give a copy of their passport and reasons for wanting to go to school in the country. Most of the foreigners, he said, are Asians—Filipinos, Thai, and the like, not Europeans. And Americans? “No. All of the Americans go to international school.”
We searched for any such permission document Obama may have submitted to the department of education by Lolo Soetoro or Ann Dunham, but came up empty. We also could not find records at Besuki School, despite requests.
So how did Obama get in?
It has been a source of speculation for some time that Obama was adopted by Lolo Soetoro. It is always a possibility, and it could explain at least the citizenship claim on the school form. However, it’s important to note that even if Obama was adopted and became an Indonesian citizen, he would not have lost his American citizenship under existing constitutional law (see the Supreme Court case Perkins v. Elg). Indonesia then and now does not allow dual citizenship, but under American law he would not have lost his American citizenship until he reached the age of majority and chose himself to give it up.
(Think of it this way: Your parents cannot decide you are no longer a U.S. citizen if you are natural born. But if you make the decision yourself once old enough —join a foreign army, for example — you could very well lose your citizenship.)
Defenders of the president (and detractors of the adoption theory) point to a 1958 Indonesian law that says a child cannot be adopted if they are over five years old and that Barry and his mother arrived in August 1967—after he had turned six. But Lolo and Ann Dunham married on March 15, 1965, when Obama was three and half and Lolo left for Indonesia in June 1966 while Obama was still four, according to Washington Post editor David Maraniss’s book, "Barack Obama: The Story." Soetoro, then, could easily have filled out adoption forms, possibly in advance of the Indonesian school year that begins in July, in preparation of his wife and stepson’s arrival. We know that Obama’s mother suddenly reversed her previous position that her husband’s departure to Indonesia would cause undue mental hardship (Maraniss, p. 201) so presumably she had settled on living in Indonesia with her husband and child. Under Indonesian law, when a man married a woman with children, the woman’s children become Indonesian nationals, as well.
Additionally, the way Maraniss describes the relationship between Obama and his stepfather is like it were an adoption. “Like his mother, Barry took the Soetoro name. He called Ann mamah and Lolo papah and did not flinch when Lolo introduced him as his son.” (Maraniss, p. 230) So complete was the view that Barack Obama was Barry Soetoro that Israel Darmawan, Obama’s first grade teacher at Fransiskus Assisis, did not recognize who he was, according to one account.
A History of Mistruths
While the current headmaster of Fransiskus Assisis did not know whose handwriting was on the form, she said it was safe to assume that the information on it was provided by Obama’s mother -- his stepfather visited only rarely during the three years Obama attended school. That raises another theory: Could Ann Soetoro, who was said to have been very interested in her son’s education so much so that she tutored him in the morning, have lied or stretched the truth regarding her son’s status to help him get into Besuki school, the best school she could? If so, it wouldn’t be the last time that she did everything she could to have her son get the best possible education.
Maraniss describes Dunham as “tireless at working the system, even from afar” as one of the reasons Obama got into the elite Punahou prep school in Hawaii. Nor would it be the last time he and his family would lie about his origins. Indeed, Maraniss notes Obama came from a family of liars who told tall tales about his origins:
“His grandfather [Stanley] had told strangers that the boy was a descendant of ali ‘i, native Hawaiian royalty. In Obama’s later memoir, he recalled boasting at Punahou that his father was an African prince. Some classmates remembered it differently, that first he claimed his father was an Indonesian prince.” (p. 268).
Maraniss is most likely referring to Kirsten B. Caldwell, who wrote in a 2008 collection that Obama had told her and her sister that he was an Indonesian prince:
“My sister and I remember Barry bragging about his father being an Indonesian prince (in his book, Dreams From My Father, he recalls telling people his father was an African prince, but we tennis court kids remember it the other way). We didn’t know it, but at that point, he was a young boy who didn’t know his real father, and had been living in Indonesia with his mother, stepfather, and half-sister, and had recently moved to a small apartment in Honolulu to live with his grandparents in order to attend a highly acclaimed private school on scholarship. What a culture shock! I can certainly understand how a new kid would want to seem more exotic when he was likely feeling a little insecure. I just figured he was an Indonesian prince who would go back for his legacy after graduation.” ("Our Friend Barry," p. 69) [Emphasis added]
It doesn’t end there. Obama’s Occidental College classmate Amiekohel “Kim” Kimbrew of Los Angeles recalled rumors that Obama was a “Hawaiian prince” to the Chicago Tribune. (“Activism blossomed in college,” Chicago Tribune, March 30, 2007).
We also know from reports in the student newspaper that Occidental, which prides itself on its diversity and international relations focus, was trying to bring more minority students to campus at the time. Might Obama have tried to pass himself off as still more diverse? Could he even have lied to “seem more exotic” to an admissions officer at Occidental or Columbia?
Add all that to the fact that Obama embellished in his book, Dreams from My Father, as Maraniss has noted, and that TheBlaze has also revealed in the past he lied about a “transfer program” he describes between Occidental and Columbia in the same book (no such transfer program exists).
That raises the question: Were Obama’s parents lying when they told Fransiskus Assisis that he was an Indonesian citizen?
It’s hard to say, but the answers to such questions matter.
What the Founder of Obama’s Indonesian School Told Us
To find out more about Obama’s time in Indonesia, TheBlaze tracked down Father Bart Janssen. He’s the elderly founder of Santo Fransiskus Assisis who we found in a monastery in Den Bosch, The Netherlands. We asked him, through a Dutch translator, what he remembers of the young Barack Obama.
In the late 1960s, Janssen was sent by the Bishop of Jakarta to set up a church in the region, which at the time was a small village well beyond the city limits of Jakarta (though now sits practically in the middle of Jakarta due to the amazing growth of the city). And while his goal was a church, the school was a way to assimilate into the community.
“There were not Catholic churches or schools in that area at the time – it was quite remote, a little village, if you will. Offering a good education was a typical way to get the local people involved with the church and become part of the community,” Janssen told us.
The school started in February 1967 and attracted about 50 students in the first years: “It was quite a challenge in the beginning, especially to attract children and grow the school and the church in such a remote area, but it became a success after a few years.”
Obama was signed up for the school in 1968 as part of the second class of students entering the school. He was six years old at the time and attended first, second, and third grade there. Janssen doesn’t remember who registered Obama, but he recalls that Obama’s mother didn’t speak Indonesian at the time, so he thinks that both the stepfather and the mother would have been there together to register their son. He also doesn’t think the details in Obama’s registration document should be considered official declarations of his faith or citizenship because it wasn’t a government form and people played loose with such facts at the time. For example, it was typical to register as Indonesian and Islamic just because you were living there, so the religion indicated may just be what his father put down because it was the normal thing to do.
“That was just the norm,” Janssen explained.
It was, Janssen added however, well known that Obama was American and came to the school from Hawaii. And Janssen said he also had an understanding that Obama was raised Christian, though not Catholic, because his mother and natural father were known to be so. Janssen also said he knew that Obama’s birth father was from Kenya and that his mother was American.
And it wasn’t a requirement to be Indonesian or Catholic to attend the school. Things were loose in terms of citizenship requirements in Indonesia, Janssen recalled. He himself had Dutch citizenship when he first set up the school in 1967 and it wasn’t until 1982 that he changed his citizenship to Indonesian. He switched citizenship back to Dutch in 2005 when he returned to the Netherlands.
Obama at Age Six: I Want to Be President
Though Indonesian citizenship wasn’t required, courses were taught in Indonesian and Obama learned the language in three months. Father Janssen recalled that when Obama took his Indonesian speaking test for the school, the young student told the class that he wanted to be president some day.
“He said he would like to be president, but he didn’t say president of which country,” Janssen said. “It ‘s quite remarkable that he had that idea back then and now, in fact, he is president of the United States.”
While Father Janssen didn’t teach classes and has no direct recollection about Obama’s performance as a student, he said Obama’s teacher told him that Obama was a good student and received good grades.
“He learned Indonesian in 3 months, after all,” he said.
He added that Obama’s parents rented a house nearby so that their son could attend the school, and also remembers that Obama was quite a bit bigger than most other students there.
Obama wasn’t the only foreign student in the school, but Janssen doesn’t recall how many were Indonesian students and how many came from other countries. He said about half the students were Catholic and the rest were other religions, including many of Islamic faith.
“It wasn’t a requirement to be Catholic, but they would be taught Catholic principles and values.”
Where does all this leave us, then? Here’s what we know:
- The document for the first-ever school Obama attended in Indonesia lists him as an Indonesian citizen (born in Hawaii) and a Muslim.
- Those claims would have benefited a young Obama as he continued his schooling.
- The Catholic priest who started the school, however, says it was not odd to lie about such things.
- We know that Obama and his family have a history of mistruths.
- But it’s also not far-fetched to consider that Obama’s step-father, Lolo, could have adopted him – thus making him an Indonesian citizen as a young boy.
- Even if he was adopted and was an Indonesian citizen at one time, though, it would not have affected his status as a U.S. citizen per the Supreme Court.
Still, that leaves many questions. And the truth lies somewhere in those facts. Ultimately, only Obama knows for sure what that truth is. And depending on what happens on Tuesday we may or may not know anytime soon.
An exit after one term from the White House could act as a catalyst for more information more quickly. An Obama win, on the other hand, would likely keep any information – at least from the president himself -- sealed for at least four more years.
Voters on Tuesday, then, may be deciding more than just who the next president is – they could help decide how much more we know about the one we have now.