Clerestory

The Jakarta Method

July 04, 2020

I recently finished The Jakarta Method, a new book about the dynamics of the Cold War by Vincent Bevins. Its subtitle, Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program that Shaped Our World, leaves no doubt about the book’s ambition, but it does little to intimate its intelligence, its nuance, and its readability. Bevins writes for a popular audience in an admirably direct and straightforward voice about an extremely difficult topic. This is an important book, which I recommend regardless of whether you know anything about the topic — and odds are you don’t.

The book describes little-known but important aspects of the Cold War, beginning with the Non-Aligned Movement, so-called because they aligned themselves neither with the US nor with the Soviet Union. Following the Second World War, this international coalition was anti-colonial, and expressed the Third World’s intention to democratically determine their own destinies as they developed and caught up with the West.

Indonesia’s Sukarno was a leader of the movement at the 1955 Bandung Conference, along with Nehru (in India), Nasser (Egypt), and Tito (Yugoslavia). In total, the 120 countries which joined would include over half the world population. The term “Third World” in this original context was a hopeful one. In the three-world model, the US and its allies were the first world, the Soviet Union, China, and Eastern Bloc were the second, and the remainder of the world would be the Third World. There was an explicit sense that this would be the newest and best World, and an improvement on the first two attempts, having learned lessons from the history of what would become the former worlds. The future looked bright.

Starting in the 1950s, the CIA began to intervene in the Third World, backing right-wing movements and governments. The list is long. Bevins looks at how the organisation’s tactics evolved from direct and obvious in the 1950s to tacit and covert by the 1960s. He argues that this was something like a foreign version of McCarthyism. Many of the decision-makers were genuinely afraid of the effects of communism, and believed they were doing the right thing. But some of the movements the CIA wound up backing had far from democratic values.

Indonesia was a new country, formed of some 17,000 islands, united only by the fact that they had all been colonised by the Dutch. Sukarno, the country’s first president, was not a communist himself, but he had not banned the PKI, an unarmed communist party which was one of the larger parties in Indonesia’s democratic elections. In 1965, they looked set to win the next election. Instead, in events which still remain unclear, six Indonesian Army generals were killed in an abortive coup attempt called the 30 September Movement.

Suharto, who was a general but was not killed, seized power from Sukarno and reported to the population that these generals had been genitally mutilated by members of the PKI. Whether the PKI was actually involved, or whether it was staged for Suharto to consolidate power is still unknown.

The book centres on the Indonesian mass killings of 1965–66 which immediately followed. Suharto purged the PKI and leftists or perceived leftists throughout the country. The killings were carried out by the Army and impromptu militia death squads. Many Indonesian civilians took part, responding to the horrific propaganda,1 or simply to settle personal scores. These killings left up to a million innocent civilians dead and another million in concentration camps. On Bali, one of the worst areas, 80,000 people (around 5% of the population) were killed, including women and children.

A top-secret CIA report from 1968 stated that the massacres “rank as one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s, the Nazi mass murders during the Second World War, and the Maoist bloodbath of the early 1950s. (From wikipedia)

If you’ve never heard of this, you’re not alone. The West regarded whatever was going in Indonesia, insofar as it regarded it at all, as a victory over militant Communism. The press largely ignored or misreported the events. What is new is that a set of CIA documents was de-classified in 2017, and they make it absolutely clear that the CIA not only knew of the killings, but supported their planning, providing lists of names of leftists for the Indonesian Army to murder. The world turned a blind eye. All this despite the fact that when they were killed, the victims had been peaceful participants in democratic elections.

I knew of these events only from Oppenheimer’s 2012 documentary The Act of Killing, which shows in chilling detail how the perpetrators (the people who literally committed the murders) remained unpunished and unrepentant; some prospered and became prominent. This is a must-see film which Bevins references in his foreword. But the book goes further, finding in the case of Indonesia evidence of a larger pattern.

Bevins argues that it was in Indonesia that forced disappearances were first used. The tactic is devastatingly effective. Imagine your spouse simply never comes home. You never learn what happened, or whether he or she is coming back. You can’t ask any questions because you too might be taken. The tactic paralyses you, because you do not know whether your child or spouse is alive or dead. Maybe by acting or speaking out, your family member will be killed as a reprisal. Bevins discusses the similarities between these acts in Indonesia and those used in the following decade by Operation Condor, also supported by the CIA, which killed and “disappeared” tens of thousands throughout the Americas.

This is the Jakarta Method. Stage a coup, or just stir up fear of one, with terrifying propaganda. Arm militias, begin forced disappearances, and allow enthusiastic civilians to take part in the killings. This wipes out all opposition, both directly (through murder) and indirectly (through terror). The word “Jakarta” — as in “Jakarta is coming” — was used as an explicit threat in several Latin American countries which later killed leftists in similar fashion.2

As if the method isn’t awful enough, there was another effect, beyond the bloodbath itself, beyond the terrible psychological trauma to the survivors, beyond the paralysis of the institution of democracy. This was the effect on the left in the rest of the world. The PKI was not just a large left-wing party in Indonesia; it was also the largest unarmed communist party in the world until its eradication, which took only a matter of months. Bevins establishes convincingly that the Indonesian killings sent a strong message to leftists in other countries: Arm, or be killed unarmed. Che Guevera, Pol Pot, and others took note.

It is critical to understand that these people were kidnapped, imprisoned, tortured, raped, and killed for voting for a mainstream party in a democracy. These were neither revolutionaries nor radicals. The PKI was one of the biggest political parties in Indonesia, representing 16% of the total vote in 1955 (up to a third of the vote in some areas). And they believed, as Marx had, that capitalism was a necessary step on the way to socialism. They consequently intended to develop capitalism gradually, without violence and without revolution. They were also genuinely unaligned; they had no connections with the USSR, and the Soviet Union did nothing to intervene. China did nothing either, though they did accept refugees from the violence.

Some of those killed were active supporters of the party — though, again, that was no crime. Often they had been enthusiastic supporters of Sukarno’s resistance to Dutch colonialism — but that described almost the whole country. Many others imprisoned were, for example, teachers or other workers who had done nothing more than joined a labour union, knowing little of politics. Anyone lucky enough to have survived the mass killings was stigmatized for life for any association, real or perceived, with the Communist Party. There was no truth and reconciliation. The “winners” wrote the history. Suharto welcomed western capital, and the world forgot that anything had happened. Luxury resorts went up over the bones of Bali’s dead; even today, bones are still found.

If all this sounds bleak, it obviously is. But the book is not an unrelenting look at the horrors of the torture and murder that occurred, as The Act of Killing is. Nor is the book a tough read; on the contrary, it is so engaging that it is all but impossible to put down. For such a grim topic, this is an impressive feat.

Bevins follows a huge number of threads, diplomats, CIA operatives, and victims for decades and across a dozen countries. Despite this complexity, and the amount of uncertainty inherent in a story that was actively concealed by key actors, the narrative lines remain clear and compelling. Bevins remains on the firm and damning ground of the CIA’s own documents, the historical record, and in some cases the memoirs of the men making the decisions, or interviews with their families. To this he adds the harrowing first-person testimonies of survivors of the atrocities (Bevins, an American, learned Indonesian to conduct these interviews, and conducted others in Portuguese and Spanish).

The book is striking in in its ability to be at once both erudite and eminently readable, horrific and gripping, and thoroughly damning while at the same time circumspect. Bevins assiduously avoids speculation. The book is extremely well-referenced but never dry or academic. He does not shy away from the painful aspects of the story, but neither does it read as a catalogue of atrocities.

In addition to all these virtues, the book is, in some of its most moving passages, a picture of a hopeful world, which could have been, but never was. This was the hope that the Third World was embarking upon a peaceful but inspiring journey towards self-determination and actualisation. The connotations of the term “Third World” today speak for how thoroughly this dream was crushed. With admirable verve and clarity, he captures this mood of hope not just in the broad historical strokes, but also in the heartfelt individual stories of those who lived through the Indonesian atrocity and many others.

This book has changed my view of 20th Century history and politics. As of this writing, the book is sold out in many places, but you can order the book anyway. It’s worth the wait.


  1. The British advised on how to create suitable propaganda.

  2. They used the term “Jakarta” in spite of the fact that Jakarta faced relatively little violence; the worst massacres were in Aceh, Bali, Central Java, and East Java.


I'm Bryan Kam. I'm thinking about complexity and selfhood. Please sign up to my newsletter or see more here.