Carnage and important historical lessons abound in book ‘The Jakarta Method’
Beachgoers stumbling on human femur bones in the sand – just a few feet from world-class resorts. Families sifting through corpses, decayed beyond recognition and piled up on the beach, in search of missing loved ones. Roadways littered with human heads impaled on bamboo spears. Ordinary homes and buildings converted into charnel houses of unspeakable torture. Parents ripped from their beds in the middle of the night and led deep into the jungle by their captors, for all-night, around-the-clock execution sessions.
These are not scenes from some horror movie. They really happened in Indonesia.
Beginning with a military coup on September 30, 1965, right-wing generals, religious fanatics and their followers carried out a genocide against the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), its supporters and anyone they suspected of supporting them. More than a million people died in this savage bloodbath, which all but annihilated the largest non-ruling communist party in the world at the time.
If you haven’t heard much about this anti-communist genocide, that’s by design. At every step – from the inception of a coup plot to the killing fields across Indonesia’s many islands – the United States trained, armed, coordinated and supported this mass murder. It should come as no surprise. Just a few hundred miles away, another anti-communist mass murder campaign was also unfolding in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia – this one carried out directly by U.S. warplanes, napalm and M-16 rifles.
But both the U.S. government and Indonesia’s fascistic military regime worked hard to conceal, deny and erase their anti-communist genocide from history books. To this day, Indonesia’s government denies this one-sided carnage ever took place – even in the face of undeniable evidence – and severely represses those who speak out.
I remember reading about these disturbing events for the first time many years ago. The unparalleled scale of the brutality alone possessed me to learn more, but I found it difficult to track down a decent, comprehensive history in English.
This year, that changed with the release of The Jakarta Method: Washington's Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World. Written by Vincent Bevins, a journalist who worked in Indonesia for several years as a Washington Post correspondent. This book is a deadly serious, sobering examination of the 1965 Indonesian genocide, the role played by the United States, and the profound impact it had on vicious anti-communist massacres around the world – from Brazil to Sudan to Central America.
Bevins’ central argument is that the ghoulish events in Indonesia became a blueprint for right-wing anti-communist forces during – and after – the Cold War. While the story centers on Indonesia, Bevins traces the evolution of the so-called ‘Jakarta Method’ – as it came to be known in Washington – from the emergence of the Soviet Union and through World War II. Whether rigging elections against the Communist Party in Italy in 1947, overthrowing democratically elected leaders in Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s, or aiding the exterminating of communists in Iraq at the dawn of the 1960s, the CIA constantly intervened to protect the profits of Wall Street and giant corporations.
Indonesia gained its independence from the Dutch Empire at the end of World War II, leading to the emergence of a progressive national democratic government under President Sukarno. The Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), one of the oldest in Asia, saw explosive growth in their newly independent country, drawing millions of workers and peasants into its ranks. Sukarno was a nationalist, not a communist, but he increasingly came to lean on the PKI for support as Indonesia came under siege from their former colonial masters in Europe and the new imperialist powerhouse: the United States.
The Jakarta Method excels in describing the complex relationship between Sukarno and the PKI. It’s clear on the significant differences between the two, along with the many ways Sukarno’s nationalist program, which tried to paper over class conflict, allowed the far-right elements that would overthrow him to ferment. Drawing from interviews with former members of the PKI, the book also shows how the communists became increasingly dependent on Sukarno for leadership at the expense of their own independence. That is important because it’s one of the biggest errors that the surviving PKI leadership summed up in a 1966 self-criticism after the massacres.
But Bevins also shows why and how genuine communists – people who read and sincerely believed the teachings of Marx and Lenin – made these errors. After all, Indonesia under Sukarno hosted the Bandung conference, which brought together anti-colonial, anti-imperialist forces from around the world to support one another. Sukarno himself welcomed the PKI as an ally, and under the relatively democratic conditions of the time, communists continued to grow and win larger shares of the vote in elections. The trade-off – the PKI becoming a mass party, focused on elections and committed to gradual, peaceful moves towards socialism, in exchange for working as Sukarno’s junior partner – proved deadly. Thankfully though, Bevins treats their error with a level of humility and respect so often lacking in the sanctimonious writings of some on the U.S. Left.
The Jakarta Method follows Indonesian exiles who fled the genocide to the United States, the People’s Republic of Bulgaria, Central America, Brazil and more. Tragically, he shows how the horrors inflicted on communists and suspected sympathizers in Indonesia followed them too, as the U.S. made anti-communism into a bloody, international movement. Bevins’ look at the meetings, the mutual aid and the exchanging of ‘best practices’ between anti-communist groups on different continents is one of the book’s many high points.
Bevins was a journalist for a well-known, corporate newspaper in the United States that leans liberal. He writes with genuine sympathy for the Indonesian communists and their political objectives, along with other left-wing movements. He’s very clearly not a Marxist himself, and his broad overview of the Cold War period includes a couple of very tired – but also very typical – distortions of history, particularly when it comes to the Soviet Union and China. But two things impressed me about Bevins’ take:
First, the book explicitly refuses to make the bogus ‘both-sides-are-equally-bad’ argument about the Cold War. Drawing truth from facts, Jakarta Method makes clear the one-sided nature of the genocide in Indonesia – the idea that the PKI was armed and ready to overthrow the state is, in fact, the very lie that Suharto’s military coup told to justify the slaughter – as did countless other countries.
In the last chapter, Bevins anticipates liberal and anti-communist objections that his book more or less glosses over the alleged crimes of socialist countries. He gives one of the best answers I’ve ever heard on this point: We’re not living in a world today shaped primarily by the purges in the Soviet Union or the Berlin Wall. We live in a world shaped by U.S. imperialism, which became the world’s dominant superpower at the end of the Cold War. Bevins is right when he says that capitalism’s victory in the Cold War – and the liberal world order we’ve lived under since – was built on the mass graves of tens of millions of people in countries like Indonesia. Genocide, not ideas like freedom or democracy, won the Cold War for the U.S.
Second, Bevins’ evaluation of the successes and errors of the PKI more or less fall in line with the party’s own summation. It’s not terribly surprising, given the depth of research that Bevins put into this book. He interviewed plenty of former PKI members, among others. But while Jakarta Method is principally a book about the anti-communist offensive during the Cold War, Bevins writes with an eye towards strategy in the present.
Frankly, a lot of socialists and revolutionaries around the world would do well to familiarize themselves with this period of Indonesian history. Some parallels jump off the page into the present world, like the obviously made-up, ludicrous claims by Suharto’s military that feminist ‘witches’ were planning to castrate men and sacrifice their children to Satan. It probably sounds a lot like the bullshit ‘fake news’ that unhinged right-wingers, from tin-foil-hat conspiracy nuts like Alex Jones to Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil to President Donald Trump, peddle about ‘Antifa.’ And yet in 2020, it’s becoming easier to see how fantasyland trash like that gets turned into justifications for very real violence against activists, organizers and supporters.
The PKI self-criticized for losing view of the question of state power. It’s not some neutral battleground to duke it out with the capitalist class. It’s a weapon that one class uses to dominate the others. In the final analysis, the state is an instrument of armed, organized violence – either your class has it, or they don’t. Even as they grew and did better in elections, their mistaken view of the state – and their role within it – led them to downplay the dangers up ahead, focusing on legal organizing rather than organizing armed self-defense. No one in Indonesia deserved the ghoulish hell they experienced at the hands of Suharto’s regime, but without arms and independent class organization, how could they have stopped it from happening?
That’s something socialists and election-focused social-democrats have to reckon with. Other communist parties at the time certainly did. Bevins interviewed Jose Maria Sison, the founder of the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP), and includes his thoughts at length. Sison and other Filipino revolutionaries carefully studied the lessons of Indonesia, rightly concluding that disarming and disbanding the CPP’s New People’s Army would be a serious mistake. To paraphrase, if legal channels for class struggle open up, by all means, organize and make use of them too, but the armed struggle for state power remains primary.
The Jakarta Method is bone-chilling reading, but I couldn’t put it down. Coming in a little under 300 pages (minus footnotes), it’s thorough but not overwhelming. Bevins follows a few of his interviewees through the decades as events unfold. It has a quasi-narrative feel at times, which may help readers who have trouble with more big-picture histories get hooked easier. Thankfully, the writing avoids the exploitative – and often racist – clichés that pepper a lot of Western non-fiction. The author has also done several terrific interviews on left-wing podcasts like Chapo Trap House and Radio War Nerd, which some readers might find helpful before starting the book.
Scoop it up and give it a read.
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