‘The Jakarta Method’

The Herald, October 2020

In 1965, the nationalist government of President Sukarno in Indonesia was toppled in a military coup d’état. Sukarno was a visionary, idiosyncratic leader who, over the preceding 15 years, had struck a precarious balancing act between the country’s ultra-conservative armed forces and its popular and assertive communist party, the PKI. He was also instrumental in establishing the so-called ‘Third World’ movement of left-leaning, non-aligned states that emerged after the Second World War.

But by the start of the 1960s, that act had begun to falter. In the middle of the decade, the generals made their move. With the implicit backing of the United States, the Indonesian army ousted Sukarno and then rapidly set about eliminating their ideological rivals. Over the next 12 months, up to one million Indonesian civilians and suspected PKI members were slaughtered in what was, by any measure, one of the worst instances of organised political violence to have occurred during the 20th-century.

In The Jakarta Method, a panoramic new account of US foreign policy during the Cold War, the American journalist Vincent Bevins details Washington’s complicity in the Indonesian massacres – massacres, he says, that altered the shape of the global political landscape yet barely register in Western histories of the era. “Indonesia likely fell off the proverbial map because the events of 1965 and 1966 were such a complete success for Washington,” he writes.

Bevins’ narrative scope is vast. Over a decade of investigative work, he travelled to twelve countries and interviewed more than a hundred people in four different languages (Spanish, Portuguese, Indonesian, and English), collecting stories of displacement, torture, oppression and – occasionally – of resistance. Some of his interviewees are ordinary Indonesians campaigning to hold those responsible for the violence to account; some are Americans whose relatives – former CIA employees – made the violence possible. The book is structured episodically, like a series of diary entries, and punctuated by chunks of in-depth reportage and analysis.

The US developed an interest in Indonesia – the fourth most populous country on earth – the moment it broke free from Dutch colonial rule in 1949. That interest intensified in the 1950s as Sukarno’s efforts to turn Third Worldism into a coherent political project gathered pace. When Sukarno began challenging US economic power in South East Asia, and then emerged as a key opponent of American involvement in Vietnam, Washington – already implicated in the overthrow of leftist governments in Iraq, Iran, and Guatemala – decided he had to go. 

According to Bevins, from the late 1950s onwards, the CIA worked tirelessly to overthrow the recalcitrant Indonesian leader. The agency pumped anti-communist propaganda into the country through the mainstream press. It disrupted the Indonesian economy. It inflated the threat posed by the PKI to domestic political stability. And – crucially – it built clandestine links to the military commanders who would ultimately seize power in 1965. 

Once Sukarno had been dislodged (he died, under house arrest, in 1970) and the PKI dealt with, Sukarno’s replacement, General Suharto, turned the sprawling island state into a compliant supporter of America’s crusade against international communism. The fall of Sukarno was a pivotal moment in the 20th-century power struggle between East and West, Bevins argues, because it splintered the Third World movement – an emerging geo-strategic alternative to both Washington and Moscow – and established a blueprint for subsequent CIA interventions. “The scale of the anti-communist victory … inspired extermination programmes around the world,” he writes.

The tactics pioneered in Indonesia were applied liberally, and with particular ruthlessness, in Latin America. At the start of 1972, the words ‘Jakarta viene’ – or ‘Jakarta is coming’ – began appearing as graffiti throughout Santiago, the capital city of Chile; eighteen months later, the Chilean army, operating with the support of the US State Department, crushed the socialist government of Salvador Allende. In 1975, the military junta in Brazil, another ally of Washington’s, launched Operação Jacarta – its own bloody campaign to “eradicate” Brazilian communism and stamp out leftwing dissent. In total, around 80,000 people are thought to have died in CIA-sponsored purges in Latin America throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Bevins says – an estimate that includes vast numbers of indigenous Latin Americans with little or no connection to socialist parties.

The Jakarta Method is a clear and comprehensive indictment of US interventionism since 1945. Bevins’ writing is clinical but it can be poignant, too. In Guatemala City, he meets Domingo, a bus driver who, in 1982, watched a US-backed death squad “execute most of the people” in his village; in Central Java, he meets Magdalena, an elderly woman still recovering from the effects of torture and imprisonment at the hands of the Suharto regime. Perhaps the most unsettling aspect of the book, however, is its assertion that militant anti-communism remains a major animating force in global politics. 

In 2016, Bevins was working as a correspondent for The LA Times in Brazil when he approached an obscure rightwing congressman in the halls of the country’s national parliament building in Brasilia. Did the congressman think the impeachment process instigated by conservative parties against Brazil’s then-leftist president, Dilma Rousseff, would be seen as legitimate by international observers, Bevins wanted to know. “The world will celebrate what we do today,” Jair Bolsonaro replied, “because we are stopping Brazil from turning into another North Korea.” As Bevins notes, you can hear Bolsonaro’s attitude echoed in the increasingly frenzied rhetoric of the American right – which, as the US presidential election approaches – regularly accuses Joe Biden and Black Lives Matter of being a front for the “radical socialism” of Bernie Sanders.

Bevins is pessimistic about the status of Washington’s imperial legacy in America’s domestic political imagination. “I know from thirteen years working as a foreign correspondent that stable, reliably pro-American [states] do not make headlines,” he writes. “And I fear that the truth about what happened [in Indonesia] so forcefully contradicts our idea of what it means to be American, that it has simply been easier to ignore.” The Jakarta Method offers a powerful corrective to that amnesiac tendency. Thanks to Bevins’ relentless reporting efforts, America’s role in the events of 1965 and 1966 should, from now on, be much harder to ignore. 

This is a review of The Jakarta Method by Vincent Bevins. Read the original piece here.

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