In Seminyak, on the Indonesian island of Bali, there are numerous luxury hotels that cater to wealthy tourists from abroad. Westerners go there to enjoy “wellness” activities, or to drink cocktails on the beach. Very few of them realise that in 1965, people were brought to this same beach at night to be killed on the basis of their real or perceived political views. In all, around 5% of the population of Bali were killed by the military during the Indonesian massacres of 1965 to 1966. This was an appalling episode in the Cold War, but one which few people in the West are aware of. This silence is carefully maintained. At a museum in Santiago, Chile, an exhibit states that the Indonesian government “abolished the law that would establish their truth commission.”
This information comes from The Jakarta Method, a superb and unsettling book by Vincent Bevins. An American journalist who has spent time living in Indonesia and Brazil, Bevins has written an urgent, exhaustively researched, and thoroughly humane book. While the text makes clear the scale and horror of the atrocities that took place in Indonesia and other countries during the Cold War, Bevins does not dwell on the specifics of the killings. He focuses instead on setting the Indonesian massacre into a broader context. The book explains how the atrocities flowed from the rising tide of fanatical anticommunism that was spreading around the world; an international form of McCarthyism which suppressed almost any attempt at breaking away from the orthodox capitalist model.
The Jakarta Method takes its title from the changing meaning of the name of the Indonesian capital. Following World War II, the term “Jakarta axiom” was used to refer to an acceptable model of neutrality in the context of superpower conflict in the early years of the Cold War. The United States seemed content to let these states follow their own economic and social path as they emerged into independence from colonialism. In 1955, Indonesia - under its leader Sukarno - spearheaded the non-aligned movement by holding the historic Bandung Conference, attended by 29 countries. This event cemented Sukarno as one of the most important figures in the developing world.
Sukarno managed an increasingly challenging balancing act in his administration of Indonesia. On his left was the local communist party, the PKI; on his right, the country’s military. As the peaceful, democratic PKI performed increasingly strongly in elections, Indonesia gradually drew more attention from the United States - which was developing a militant, murderous opposition to the very suggestion of communism. In his book, Bevins expertly summarises the years following World War II in his chapter, “A New American Age”. Ultimately, the U.S. would support a military coup in Indonesia which brought General Suharto to power. Then, in October 1965 the military began its extermination of the PKI. They had at their disposal kill lists, provided to them by the Americans. “It really was a big help to the army,” remarked a political officer at the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. “They probably killed a lot of people, and I probably have a lot of blood on my hands, but that's not all bad.” While estimates vary, up to one million people were killed.
In the years following the devastatingly successful attacks on communists in Indonesia, the word “Jakarta” took on an ominous new meaning. Bevins identifies at least eleven countries in which the term was used as a threat - notably in Chile, where in 1973 the democratically elected left-wing government of Salvador Allende was deposed in a fascist coup. The killings in Indonesia had proved so effective in destroying a communist movement that it was seen as a model to use by the U.S.-backed regimes around the Global South. In Latin America, six right-wing military regimes colluded with American support to institute Operation Condor beginning in 1975. These governments worked together to hunt down and murder tens of thousands of leftists. They even extended their terror network abroad. In September 1976, a former minister in Allende’s government - Orlando Letelier - was assassinated with a car bomb in Washington D.C. The assassins worked for the Chilean secret police under General Pinochet, who famously enjoyed the friendship of Margaret Thatcher.
One of the most striking aspects of The Jakarta Method is how it centres the stories of people who were profoundly affected by the events in Indonesia in the mid-20th century. Bevins met his subjects in 12 countries - many of them Indonesians who had fled their homeland. The book is so extensively researched that many of the people he met are not covered or quoted directly in it. In his discussions of those stories that are in the book, Bevins displays a genuine knowledge of and affection for Indonesia and other countries affected by anticommunist violence. The Jakarta Method isn’t marketed as a “people’s history”, but in many ways it is exactly that. It confronts major questions about economics, geopolitics, and ideology but it never loses sight of its human aspect.
The Jakarta Method is a major and in some ways challenging book. It covers a broad period of history, and while it focuses primarily on Indonesia it also covers Brazil extensively, and touches on numerous other countries. Bevins explains that many factors led up to the waves of anticommunist mass killings, and there remain questions about exactly how they happened. He also makes a case that the violent suppression of opposition to capitalism around the globe has impacted significantly on today’s situation. While the horror of this violence is unsettling, there is also a positive aspect to the book. The people Bevins meets with are often deeply inspiring in their determination to spread the truth about what happened to their friends and loved ones, and to their country. While they are now old, and often living in difficult circumstances, their hope for a better world is undiminished.
Today, the failings and injustices of capitalism feel more pronounced than ever - and yet a better future can be difficult to imagine. The Jakarta Method is an important contribution to understanding the world we live in today. It is also, in its focus on events like the Bandung Conference, a glimpse of how things might have been - and perhaps still could be - different.