- Law Cases
by Sharon Rondeau
(Aug. 5, 2010) – The Post & Email has made contact with a highly credible individual who was born and raised in Indonesia. Here he explains the significance of the term “Soebarkah,” which first appeared to the American public on July 29, 2010 on passport application forms released by the Bureau of Customs and Border Control to Mr. Christopher Strunk, who had filed a lawsuit in November 2008 after his FOIA request was denied.
SHARON: Thank you for making time to speak with The Post & Email on very short notice. My first question is what I think everyone wants to know: what does the word “Soebarkah” mean?
SAM: The word “Soebarkah” as it was presented in the article that you wrote in brackets under the name “Barack Hussein Obama” signifies to me a different name for Barack, so it’s his other name. Now that is an Indonesian name, and the majority of Indonesians have only one name. When I first saw it, knowing or having read about some people’s contentions that he was adopted by his Indonesian stepfather, I thought it might be his given name when he was adopted: Soebarkah.
SHARON: Do they usually change the name when there’s an adoption by an Indonesian man?
SAM: Sometimes they do; sometimes they don’t. But I believe most of the time they probably do. So based on what I have heard or read that he might have been adopted, I think that must be the name given to him at the time of adoption. Now that is just one name, because Indonesian Muslims don’t usually have a surname; they only go by one name. However, these days, there is a trend among the younger generation to give their children more than one name. So they might have two names, but both of them are “given” names; they’re not family names.
In the olden days, many years ago, royalty would use what is considered to be a family name. In the Indonesian form, there is no place for a family name because usually people don’t have family names. But it occurred to me that during the time right after his adoption, things were still going fine between his mom and Soetoro – you never know – she might have had to fill out a form for the rest of the country with the name and surname of the son, so she might have used the name “Soebarkah Soetoro” to indicate first name (given name), and “Soetoro” being Lolo Soetoro’s name, which in this case might have been used as a surname.
This happened to a friend of mine who now lives in the United States. She and her husband are Indonesians, and the husband, as usual, only has one name. His name is Utri. But when filling out forms here, since he doesn’t have a middle name, he uses the same name as his last name, and the wife has only one name. Her first name is Haneg, and she uses her husband’s name as her last name or family name. They’re filling in forms to come to the United States and in it, there’s a space on the form for last name. So it all depends, and it gets confusing. In her case, she used her husband’s first name as a last name, which is pretty common.
SHARON: So on that form that we’ve all seen where it says “Barack Hussein Obama” then “(Soebarkah),” you believe “Soebarkah” is a given name.
SAM: The only reason he would be given a name which would go on an official form is if the name was given to him officially. And then the only reason, in my mind, for him to be given an official Indonesian name would have been during his adoption.
SHARON: Could it represent what Americans call a “nickname”?
SAM: No. “Lolo” might be a nickname. So his name might be “Soetoro,” because most Indonesians do have nicknames. So “Lolo” might have come from what he called himself when he was very young. Often that name would stick into adulthood. Almost everybody in Indonesia has nicknames which are used at different times. Again, it depends; nicknames can be used until they’re adults, and some people would use it only amongst their friends and family. Others would use a nickname in the workplace. I have a nickname, but it’s only for my relatives and very, very close friends, and I have a given name, and I have a name that’s on my birth certificate. Now the given name is more known among my friends because it is the name I used when I went to school and I was growing up and as an adult when I worked in Indonesia.
My family lives in a village where we have very deep roots; we’ve been there for hundreds of years, and most of my relatives are still there. When I go back to the village, they only know me by my nickname. So if someone went there and asked, “Did you know Sam?” they would say, “Sam Who?” But they would then say, “The son of such-and-such…” and then they would say, “Oh, yes, of course, he’s my cousin!” That’s how it is there.
SHARON: Does everyone have only one name then?
SAM: Only Muslims have just one name. Christians always have given name, baptism name, and surname. The Chinese do as well; they always have three names, and the surname is the first word. For example, with “Sun-e-Wah,” the first word, “Sun,” is the surname. The Balinese people usually have more than one name.
SHARON: What does an Indonesian birth certificate look like? If a person is Muslim and has only one name, is that what goes on it?
SAM: The majority of Indonesians don’t have family names, although recently they have been using more than one name if they have to go overseas. On the forms they would put a name such as a husband’s name or a father’s name in the blank for family name.
SHARON: Does that create problems when someone is applying to get into the United States, either temporarily or permanently? What would a person have to do to begin using a second name legally?
SAM: I can tell you what happened to some people. They were given a visa to come here, a work permit, based on the name given. But there’s another Indonesian whom I know pretty well, and there were subsequent forms because they were able to get a green card, and they put their name down on the form as “unknown.”
SHARON: Does the State Department accept that, knowing that there’s an Indonesian tradition of just one name?
SAM: Yes. So it would say “SNU,” which means that one of the names is unknown. Now if you change citizenship, if you become a citizen, you can use any name you want. You don’t have to use the name that you used before. You can have a completely new name; they don’t seem to care.
SHARON: So if someone comes over on a visa and then applies to become an American citizen and go through naturalization, he or she can choose any name at all?
SAM: Yes, that’s what I’ve heard. Remember when many people came through Ellis Island? When they came through, their names were too hard to pronounce, so they changed them, right then and there. And it’s the same now. In my own experience, I have three given names, but they were too long. There was one that I always used when I was in Indonesia. We didn’t have enough space on the forms, so my husband said, “Well, pick two out of the three.” So I picked the two which I don’t like, but it was the best-sounding combination and it fit in the space.
SHARON: How many languages do you speak?
SAM: I speak Indonesian and English, although I can read and understand the Dutch language as well. However, I don’t read it well enough so that I can translate quickly; it would take me forever to translate a page.
SHARON: Were the Dutch involved in settling Indonesia?
SAM: Yes, Indonesia used to be a colony. The tribe that I’m from is all Christians, so we all adopted Dutch Christian names. So in English it would be pronounced “Maria,” and in Indonesia it would be pronounced the Dutch way, which is “Ma-ree-ah.” My sister’s name is Maria Christiana.
SHARON: I assumed you were a Christian when you said you had three names, because if you were Muslim, you would have had only one.
SAM: The people in the northern part of Sulawesi where I came from are Christians.
SHARON: Do the religious groups separate themselves in Indonesia?
SAM: No. When it was a Dutch colony, people in Java and Sumatra and the people who are on the coastal islands of Indonesia experienced the traders coming to Indonesia from India, Pakistan and the Middle East, and they were the ones from Saudi Arabia who brought the Muslim religion to Indonesia. That’s why it first caught hold on the coastal areas, because of the kings and everything. So the population that was inland in Java and Sumatra also became Muslim.
In those days, travel was done only by boats and ships, so the port areas were the first ones visited and the traders brought their religion with them, which was Islam. From the ports and coastal areas it spread inland. You see, traders have always visited Indonesia, even before the Dutch colonization. They either visited Indonesia for its spices, which in those days could be found only in Indonesia, especially nutmeg, which at that time was worth more than gold.
Java has always been the most populous island in Indonesia, hence there weren’t as many virgin tropical jungles as on the other main islands, which made travel easier than on the other islands, like Sumatra, or Borneo (Kalimantan),which was much harder to traverse due to the density of the tropical jungles.
The Aceh area, the most northern part of the island of Sumatra, (this is the area struck by the tsunami a few years ago), is and has been the most fanatical Muslim population of Indonesia. It is known as the “porch” of Indonesia where Islam is concerned, because that was where Islam first touched in Indonesia and got its foothold. In fact, Aceh is the first province in Indonesia that declared Shariah law as the law of the land.
The people in the part that I came from were animists for a long, long time. There are still animist people in Indonesia, some of the tribes in the central part of Kalimantan, which is called the “dark people.” Many of them are Christians, but there are still some who are animists and they really still live as if they’re in the Stone Age. They’re called the aborigines, actually: indigenous people in Irian Jaya Barat or West Papua. So that’s why when the Dutch came, they had an agreement with the local rulers that there would be no proselytizing amongst our people, and even though they sent their ministers, their evangelists, as is often the case and is still happening today, the person who is considered friendly with the Christians is ostracized or harassed. So it’s not for the health of the Muslim who is considered by the others as friendly or that he or she might convert to Christianity. They were very successful in converting the other tribes that were animists in those days to Christianity, and that is why the northern part of Sulawesi where I came from, where my tribe is from, are all Christians. (The English name for Sulawesi is Celebes.) The Christians had very little success in Java which has pockets of Javanese, so Java has two tribes. The ones in the western part of the island are called Sundanese, and those in central and east Java are called Javanese. There are pockets on the island of Java where they have a very strong Catholic population, especially central Java.
You might recall that a few years ago there was terrible civil strife in the central part of Sulawesi in a place called Poso. There was a horrendous conflict between the Christians and the Muslims in this particular area. Like so many villages, that particular area used to be Christian, but with more Muslims coming in, when they reached almost 50%, they wanted power. It began as something locally but because the Muslims had sympathizers from other parts of Indonesia, the Christians were the ones who lost out and were victimized the most. In fact, you may recall there were three schoolgirls who were heinously murdered on their way to school from this area. That was in the central part of Sulawesi.
SHARON: I do recall that. Is the strife still ongoing?
SAM: Not the way it was before; it has calmed down.
SHARON: We’ve discussed the passport application with Obama’s name. Do you think there is any significance in any of the other pages, specifically the one which stated, and she affirmed:
I have been informed that my passport is not valid and that a valid passport is required by law to enter the United States. I request that an exception be granted to me, as provided in Section 53.2(h), Title 22 of the Code of Federal Regulations. I understand that a fee of $25 is required under Section 53.2(h) and I will remit such fee to the Passport Office, Department of State, Washington, D.C., 20524, within 30 days.
I know it’s hard to guess about what might have happened at that time, but do you have any thoughts?
SAM: The laws have changed recently, but what we had always understood at that time is that, especially with a woman (because in the Muslim world, men have more rights than women; they’re above women), if you married, if a spouse is of a different nationality or citizenship, and if the Indonesian spouse returns to Indonesia to live, then the alien spouse had to change citizenship in order to be able to live there. I haven’t been able to find the laws from those days because the Indonesian government isn’t as digitized as the U.S. government is; so one would have to be a lawyer to be able to look back and to have law books from 30 or 40 years ago. But that was the general understanding in those days. And a person could not have dual nationality. In fact, when I became an American citizen, I had to let go of my Indonesian citizenship. I could only have one. I understand now that they will accept both, and also now, as a spouse, there are two or three different kinds of visas that would allow an alien spouse to live in Indonesia, or the Indonesian spouse could sponsor the alien spouse to live with him or her. So there are several ways for getting the spouse to live in Indonesia without having to go out of the country every two months or so.
SHARON: So is it conceivable that Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro did not have to change her citizenship to Indonesian?
SAM: I would have to say something in the affirmative because, as I said, I’m not an attorney and I haven’t seen the laws from those days. It was just everybody’s understanding in those days, in the 1960s.
SHARON: It appears from the passport applications and other released information that both adults were traveling in and out of the U.S. and Indonesia quite frequently. It seems very unusual, especially for that time period.
SAM: There were a few people who did that, not just Americans and Europeans. They were the ones who were involved with or worked for foreign entities, of course, or one of those world organizations. So while it was unusual in the sense that not many Americans did that, it’s not unusual for people who worked for those NGOs (non-governmental organizations), for instance.
SHARON: To your knowledge of that time, if a child was adopted by an Indonesian man, would the child have had to become a citizen of Indonesia?
SAM: Yes, definitely. And again, the school registration does say that he was a Muslim.
SHARON: Could you translate every word on that document?
SAM: Sure, I’ll do it now.
SHARON: Is there anything on the form about an adoption?
SAM: No, it’s a straightforward thing about name, father’s name, religion, things like that. In Indonesia, any form that you fill in, it asks for your religion, unlike here, where it’s against the law.
SHARON: Yes, a person’s religion is considered private here with few exceptions. Did you see anything unusual on the form?
SAM: Number 1 asks “Name of student” and it is filled in with “Barry Soetoro,” and then, “Place and date of birth,” and it says “Honolulu, 1961.” No. 3 asks “Nationality” and “a” is “citizenship,” and it says “Indonesia,” and then “b” says “of Asian descent,” and it’s blank there. Then “c” asks “tribe” or “ethnicity,” which is also blank.
No. 4 asks for religion, which says “Islam.” Then “address of student,” then “Transferred from which school?” and “grade,” and it says “Kindergarten”…I can’t read the name, so apparently this must have been for when he was in first grade, because it says “Transferee from a kindergarten.” Then No. 7 says “Accepted at this school on the date,” which is “1/1/1968,” I believe, which means he would have been six and a half years old.
Then in “7b,” it states the class in which he was placed, and it says “1.” In No. 8, it asks name of parents, and the one above that line says “L. Soetoro, M.A.” I imagine “M.A.” is his title, meaning “Master of Arts,” because very often in Indonesia, they put their titles next to their names. If somebody has a doctorate, for instance, then they would say “Dr.” next to their name. I could be wrong, but I believe “M.A.” was a title. Chances are that was his degree.
Then “d” asks his job, and it says he was an employee of the Geology Department of the Directorate of Mining. Then, underneath that, in brackets, typed in, it says, “Name of mother here only if father is deceased.” Afterward, it says “c, Address” and it says “Ment.” – I guess he was from Menteng Dalam, his house address – and then afterward, there is nothing else there. No. 9 asks about one who has custody, a guardian, if the person doesn’t have a father.
SHARON: Why do you think at the top of the school registration form it says “Barry Soetoro” but on the passport application it says “Soebarkah”?
SAM: I have no idea. There are so many inconsistencies in so many things, as you pointed out in your article, and two different application forms for her passport and two different dates for her wedding date. I don’t know if the mother was just sloppy; it seems to me that she was.
SHARON: Could it be that in the beginning they called him “Barry Soetoro” and then they came up with the new name “Soebarkah” after the adoption was complete?
SAM: Well, this is just my opinion, but knowing how things are over there, his nickname might have been “Barry,” so that’s the name that everybody is comfortable with. So that’s why he was still called “Barry” instead of “Soebarkah,” which is a different name and kind-of heavy for a child. It would be good to have his adoption papers because if that was true and correct, then the name “Soebarkah” would show up on the adoption papers. To me, the only way he would be given an Indonesian name is when he was officially adopted.
SHARON: In the documents released to Mr. Allen through his FOIA request, on at least one of them, Lolo Soetoro stated that it would be difficult for his wife to join him in Indonesia because she didn’t know the Indonesian language and it was very dangerous for Americans in Indonesia at that time. Do you recall that being the case?
SAM: I don’t understand why he said that because things definitely were not dangerous for ex-pats in Indonesia at that time. Crime-wise, it’s a lot worse now, and if somebody is a Christian and lives in an area that is fanatically Muslim, then, yes, but not in those days. So I don’t know why he would say that his wife would be in danger. That’s not true at all.
SHARON: He stated that “anti-American sentiment” was very high at that time.
SAM: Well, that was true, but it was just politically, not the people themselves.
SHARON: And if Stanley Ann were living with him…
SAM: Yes, and being a Muslim, too…Once you’re married to a Muslim, you’re one of them, and their religion is “us against you.” I don’t know whether you know, but if somebody changes religion to Christianity, you would call them a convert, right?
SAM: But the Muslims, when somebody changes her religion and becomes Muslim, the Muslims don’t call it a “convert.” They call it a “revert.” Because, in their belief, all the babies were born Muslim; it’s just because of the bad influence of the parents that that baby became a Christian, for instance. When later on in life, that person becomes a Muslim, then in their minds, that person has become a Muslim again. So that’s why they use the word “revert” instead of “convert.” That’s just to show you that the religion is 180 degrees different from all the other major religions in the world. So that’s why I said that because she was married to a Muslim, I don’t think there would have been animosity toward her as an American.
SHARON: He also said that he wouldn’t be able to support his wife in Indonesia even though he worked for the Indonesian government.
SAM: Well, that was true. No matter how much he made, even though he was a government official, it still wasn’t enough to support his wife. In what context did Lolo say that she wouldn’t be able to join him?
SHARON: He was appealing a decision from the State Department for denying an extension of his visa.
SAM: Maybe he used the “anti-American sentiment” as an excuse to stay in the United States.
SHARON: There was also a letter about whether or not he paid his taxes properly and his wife wrote back insisting that he did. Then there was another letter from Lolo stating that he had a friend complete the form who knew English better than he did and that if he broke any regulations, he was unaware of it and seemed apologetic. So the husband and wife each said something different.
SAM: Oh, I’ll have to read it.
SHARON: I have one last question: does the name “Soebarkah” mean anything in Indonesian?
SAM: No, it’s just a name. It might have come from a very old Javanese word, but there are other people who have been given that name.
SHARON: I ran a quick search and found that “Soebarkah” seemed to be a fairly common last name, but that was before you told me that Muslim Indonesians have only one name. Many of the examples I saw seemed to indicate that it was a last name.
SAM: “Soebarkah” could be someone’s name, but the son of Soebarkah could have used his dad’s name as his last name, and then his children and their children afterward. But in this particular case where his name is written in brackets underneath the name “Barack Hussein Obama,” from what I know, my experience of being an Indonesian, having grown up there, speaking the language, to me that only signifies that that’s his other name.
SHARON: And you think he was given that name upon adoption?
SAM: That would be the only occasion where he would be given a different name, especially something that appears in a formal document. If somebody just gave it to him casually, I don’t think they would write it down in a formal document.
SHARON: It was included in a passport application which said that her original passport “was not valid.”
SAM: It makes you wonder why it’s not valid, doesn’t it? There’s a big question mark knowing that in those days, somebody in her position who married an Indonesian would have had to have take up Indonesian citizenship in order to be able to live there indefinitely.
SHARON: She always seemed to apply for a U.S. passport every five years, however. Could she have done that even if she had become an Indonesian citizen?
SAM: Yes, definitely, because I have friends here who say that they kept their old passport, so when they travel outside of the United States, they use their American passport, but when they enter Indonesia, they use an Indonesian passport. It is illegal, but yes, it’s done. There are people who have done it. Ann Soetoro could have done that, too. I’m not saying she did, but even now, some people are still doing it. Some of them who are here legally with their American husbands (usually it’s someone who has an American husband) want the convenience of having American citizenship so they don’t have to maintain or renew permits every so many years, but they don’t want to lose their Indonesian passport for whatever reason. One of the reasons is that they can’t inherit property if they lose that citizenship.
SHARON: If Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro had become an Indonesian citizen because she married Lolo Soetoro and Obama was adopted and she was flying back and forth between Indonesia and Honolulu, when going to the U.S. embassy to apply for a U.S. passport to make her trips, would they have asked her any questions?
SAM: Well, they would have seen that she had a valid passport, which is all you have to have to renew your passport: a valid passport, photograph, and it used to be $25; now maybe it’s $35 or less in some places. But that’s all she would have needed.
SHARON: I think it was $10.00 back in the 1960s. But would they have said to her, “You’ve been living in Indonesia so you must have become an Indonesian citizen?”
SAM: No. You can’t really do that, especially if you are an official; you can’t really accuse someone of anything.
SHARON: She always checked off “U.S. Citizen” on the passport applications.
SAM: Not only that, but it’s not done just with an American passport. I know somebody who did it with a British passport, although Great Britain allows dual citizenship. But when they came here, Indonesia did not allow dual citizenship. So the Indonesian passport was kept illegally.
SHARON: Do you know if in 1971, Obama would have to have had his own passport to travel to Hawaii?
SAM: If he had kept his American passport, then he would have had his own American passport. But on an Indonesian passport, he would have been on his mother’s passport. There might be exceptions, but that’s generally been the rule. As I said, in those days they were much stricter than they are now. Now, they are opening up more, so now they have passed measures which allow a foreign spouse to live in Indonesia, whereas before, I don’t think they had such an opportunity. There are several exceptions now: with one, you have to renew every six months, and another one, if the wife or husband sponsors you, it takes a little longer to get it, but you don’t have to renew it every year or after so many months.
SHARON: If Obama had had his own Indonesian passport when he was a child, do you think he used that to enter the United States?
SAM: Well, before his mother married Soetoro, I would imagine that when they left the U.S., they had separate passports for him and for her, and then probably when they were in Indonesia and she had to change her citizenship, then he would have been on her passport. She was only required to use it when they were leaving Indonesia. Once outside of Indonesia, she could have used their own individual American passports.
SHARON: But it was illegal to have both?
SAM: What is illegal is for an Indonesian to have two passports, and Americans, too. I changed citizenship almost thirty years ago, and it was illegal then.
Tags: Barack Hussein Obama, Celebes, Christians, Christopher Strunk, Dutch, FOIA, Indonesia, Irian Jaya Barat, Java, Kalimantan, Middle East, Mr. Christopher Strunk, Muslim, Poso, Soebarkah, Sulawesi, Sumatra, Sundanese, West Papua