Did Barack Obama's stepfather, Lolo Soetoro, run death squads for the Indonesian army in the mid-1960s? No, that's not true: The identities of those who organized the death squads are well known and Soetoro was not one of them, a professor who has studied the mass violence of 1965-66 in Indonesia told Lead Stories. While Soetoro, a geography student, was summoned back to Indonesia and enlisted in the military during this period, this occurred after the worst of the killings from October to December 1965, the expert said. Soetoro worked on mapping -- not massacres -- for the military, he added.
The claim about Soetoro appeared in a video (archived here), first posted on YouTube on December 19, 2021, that has again gone viral. In the video, the TV personality Judge Joe Brown alleged to producer-writer Curtis Scoon in a 2019 interview that:
He ran the death squads for the Indonesian army. On his own call, anyone could be assassinated.
Click below to watch the video on YouTube:
Brown's comments begin at 1:14 in the video posted on the YouTube channel of Scoon's talk show, Scoon TV.
The claim refers to the Indonesian military's response to a 1965 coup attempt in which six army generals were murdered. The military responded by slaughtering "communists and alleged communists across Java and in Bali, with estimates of the number of people killed ranging from 80,000 to more than 1,000,000," according to Britannica (archived here).
"This claim about Obama's stepfather is manifestly false," Geoffrey Robinson, professor emeritus in the Department of History at the University of California Los Angeles (archived here) told Lead Stories via email on November 17, 2023. He explained that while the Indonesian army employed Soetoro in the 1960s, "there is absolutely no truth in the claim he 'ran the death squads.'"
Robinson has studied the mass violence of 1965-66 in Indonesia for over 30 years, and wrote a comprehensive history of those events, "The Killing Season: A History of the Indonesian Massacres, 1965-66" (archived here).
Criticizing Judge Joe Brown, Robinson said his allegation "reflects either a profound ignorance of the history of the events of 1965-66, or a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts":
The identities of those who organized the death squads (and there were many of them) are well known - and Soetoro was not one of them. Moreover, by all accounts, he was not even in Indonesia (he was in Hawaii) when the worst of the killings occurred (October-December 1965). And when he did return to Indonesia, sometime in 1966, he was posted to Irian Jaya/West Papua to carry out mapping work. While Indonesia's claim to Irian Jaya/West Papua was contested, and led to fighting, it was not the site of the anti-communist death squad killings to which Judge Brown appears to be referring.
Robinson identified General Suharto, who ran Indonesia for over three decades, from 1967 until 1998, as the person who actually oversaw the killings:
The person most responsible for organizing the killings was General Suharto (not Sukarno who was the President), but there were a great many other Army officers, politicians, and religious figures who played a role.
A detailed 2019 BBC obituary about one of these mass killers, Anwar Congo, made no mention of Obama's stepfather.
A New York Times (archived here) profile of Obama, published in 2008, reported about his mother's marriage and their subsequent move to Indonesia but never mentioned that Soetoro was involved in death squads:
She then married Lolo Soetoro, an Indonesian student. When he was summoned home in 1966 after the turmoil surrounding the rise of Suharto, Ms. Soetoro and Barack followed.
In a 2008 profile of Obama (archived here), The Washington Post wrote about his stepfather, a student, being "summoned" back to Indonesia from the U.S. amid the turmoil in the country. The article did not refer to Soetoro running death squads in Indonesia:
All of this, as Obama later interpreted it, related to the exercise of power, hidden and real. It was power that forced Soetoro to return to Indonesia in the first place. He had been summoned back to his country from Hawaii in 1966 and sent to work in New Guinea for a year because the ruling regime, after a widespread, bloody purge of communists and leftists, was leery of students who had gone abroad and wanted them back and under control. To his mother, power was ugly, Obama determined: "It fixed in her mind like a curse." But to his stepfather, power was reality -- and he "made his peace" with it.
Other Lead Stories fact checks of claims about Barack Obama can be found here.