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  • Writer's pictureChristopher Soelistyo

Reading "The Jakarta Method" by Vincent Bevins

I began reading this expecting it to be a book about Washington's involvement in the enormous mass murder of Indonesians in 1965/66, but it was much more than that. In essence, it is a book about the ideology of what Bevins calls "fanatical anti-communism" and its devastating effects around the globe. The West often thought of "communism" to be a menacing, coordinated, global force during the Cold War, driven by a singular fanatical ideology. Bevins reveals its exact opposite - fanatical anti-communism - to be much the same. It was a global crusade led by Washington, with Indonesia standing out as its greatest success.

The Indonesian Communist Party (PKI, Partai Komunis Indonesia), was the third-largest communist party in the world, after that of the Soviet Union and China, with an impressive and growing support base in the world's fourth most populous country. However, unlike the Soviet and Chinese communists, the PKI believed it could attain power within the system; as such, its activities were legal and non-violent. However, US officials were deeply concerned that the PKI would drag Indonesia firmly into the communist bloc, and were determined to prevent this at all costs.

The opportunity came in late 1965. In the early hours of October 1st, 1965, a group of Indonesian soldiers launched an operation to assassinate seven of the army's top generals, with only one managing to escape. In response, the army, now under the de-facto command of General Suharto, blamed the attack on the PKI and proceeded to launch a mass extermination of Indonesian communists and their alleged sympathisers.

American support was forthcoming; the CIA handed Suharto communications equipment to help spread the allegations against the PKI, and US government officials and plantation owners even handed over lists of communists and union organisers to the military, knowing full well that they would all be exterminated.

On October 5th, Marshall Green, US Ambassador to Jakarta, sent a cable to the State Department suggesting that they throw their weight behind Suharto and the military; that they should "indicate clearly to key people in the army ... our desire to be of assistance where we can, while at the same time conveying to them our assumption that we should avoid appearance of involvement or appearance in any way". The US should also "Spread the story of PKI's guilt, treachery and brutality (this priority effort is perhaps most needed immediate assistance we can give army if we can find way to do it without identifying it as solely or largely US effort)" (p.138).

On October 20th, with the slaughter well under way, Ambassador Green reported that the PKI had suffered "some damage to its organizational strength through arrest, harassment and, in some cases, execution of PKI cadres", concluding that the army had "been working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organization in carrying out this crucial assignment" (p.140).

This mass murder campaign, which resulted in the deaths of between half a million to a million people, was a huge success for Washington. Yet, Bevins' achievement in this book is to situate it within a wider global effort to eradicate communism in the Third World. He identifies no fewer than twenty-two countries in which there were extermination campaigns aided by Washington after 1945, primarily in the anti-communist bastions of South Korea (100,000-200,000 killed in 1948-1950) and Taiwan (10,000 killed in 1947) as well as the countries of Latin America (roughly 400,000 killed between 1954-1996) (pp.266-267).

Source: Twitter: Vincent Bevins (@vinncent), from The Jakarta Method, Appendix 5.

He even shows how "Jakarta" had become a code-word for mass extermination in some of these countries, such as Brazil: "Operação Jacarta, or "The Jakarta Operation", was the name of a secret part of an extermination plan ... testimony gathered after the fall of the dictatorship indicates Operação Jacarta may have been part of Operação Radar, which was aimed at destroying the structure of the Brazilian Communist Party" (pp.193-194).

Yet perhaps most interestingly, Bevins describes how in Brazil, anti-communist ideology absorbed elements of myth and legend, in almost religious fashion - a pattern that could be found again in Indonesia. In 1935, there was a rebellion that erupted when leftist soldiers took control of the northern city of Natal, ignoring calls of restraint from the Brazilian Communist Party (p.102). The "final act" of the rebellion came when military troops and rebels fought at a barracks on a beach in Rio de Janeiro. This incident, whatever its origins, became a "communist uprising" in the Brazilian imagination. In the years afterward, the barracks assault became a legend, as the military began to tell the story that "November 1935 was not a conventional attack on military barracks. The tale became that communists snuck into the chambers of the officers, and stabbed them to death while they slept" (p.103). Every year, the military gathered in front of a memorial on this beach to commemorate the defence against this "communist" rebellion.

He writes, "communists with knives, ready to stab you in your sleep, became a common trope in Brazil's voluminous anticommunist material over the next few decades. In the press, you could also find illustrations indicating that communists were insects that could only be "exterminated" with liberty, the family and morality. [...] communism was associated with pure evil or witchcraft, drawn with the use of demons or Satanic beasts, such as dragons, snakes and goats. There was often the implication, or outright depiction, of sexual perversion and deviancy" (p.103).

This odd admixture of communism and religious deviancy found another home in Suharto's Indonesia. After the October 1st attack by dissident soldiers, "Suharto and his men claimed that the Indonesian Communist Party had brought the generals back to Halim Air Force Base and begun a depraved, demonic ritual. They said members of Gerwani, the Women's Movement, danced naked while the women mutilated and tortured the generals, cutting off their genitals and gouging out their eyes, before murdering them" (p.133). "The story of a demonic communist plot to take over the country by mutilating good, God-fearing military men in the dark of night had become something like part of the national religion under the Suharto dictatorship".

Bevins also details the often tragic ways in which the Indonesian massacre hardened the attitudes of communists worldwide. For example, in Chile, there were two co-existing leftist groups - the Chilean Communist Party, which advocated that "the left should participate in elections and work within the democratic system" (p.171), and the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR, Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria), which was inspired more by Che Guevara's model of guerilla warfare. Both groups were horrified by the bloodletting in Indonesia, but "it was the members of MIR who seized upon the violence in Indonesia to make their point about tactics"; Carmen Hertz, at that time a student at the University of Chile, remembers one of her radical friends saying, "You see what happens if you leave yourself vulnerable?" (p.172).

Similarly, in Cambodia, "Pol Pot and his followers were also paying very close attention to Indonesia. They studied the collapse of the PKI, and concluded that its strategy of aligning with [Indonesian President] Sukarno and winning mass democratic support had only led to disaster. As a result, he vowed to ... [achieve and maintain power] through arms and violence" (p.169). After achieving this power, his "Khmer Rouge" murdered 1.5-2 million people between 1975 and 1979.

Bevins also draws links between the Indonesian massacre and the Cultural Revolution in the People's Republic of China, a violent "anti-rightist" purge that took millions of lives. The Cultural Revolution was "built around the idea that hidden bourgeois elements could infiltrate and threaten a left-wing movement. The events in Indonesia in 1965-66 serve as self-evident justification for this narrative" (p.166).

Overall, the achievement of Bevins' book in my view is to place the Indonesian massacre in a global context, in terms of what influenced its course, and what it came to influence in return. It is an informative and readable account of an event that is rarely spoken about by Americans and Indonesians alike.



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