The Jakarta Method, or how anti-communism never left the Global South

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In “The Jakarta Method,” journalist Vincent Bevins (pictured left) illustrates how the violence and anti-communist paranoia we suffer today is rooted in history. Photos from PUBLIC AFFAIRS BOOKS

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in this book review are the author’s.

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — Every post-martial law administration has dealt with the presence of armed struggle waged by the Communist Party of the Philippines–New People’s Army (CPP-NPA), one of the oldest existing communist insurgencies in the world. Each president has employed different approaches to addressing this issue, from peace talks to total annihilation, though they seem to prefer the latter approach than the former. In 1972, Ferdinand Marcos imposed nationwide martial law using the threat of a communist takeover as justification. Almost five decades later, President Rodrigo Duterte would also promise martial law if the menace of the NPA persists. This declaration came after he ordered soldiers to shoot female rebels in the vagina, and before he facilitated the passage of a widely-criticized anti-terror bill, which he claimed targeted only “communist terrorists.” Even in the middle of a global pandemic, the Philippine government ordered its forces to concentrate their efforts in fighting the “lingering CPP-NPA virus.”

The specter of anti-communism looms so large in Philippine history and society that one may ask: is there any factual basis for this fear? Because a cursory look at Philippine history shows how some of the worst crimes were perpetrated in the name of anti-communism. In “The Conjugal Dictatorship,” Malacañang insider and whistleblower Primitivo Mijares exposed how Marcos orchestrated several bombings and acts of terror, and blamed them on the CPP to strengthen his argument for declaring martial law. UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston reported how the Arroyo administration’s counter-insurgency operations against the CPP led to the summary executions of hundreds of leftists and progressive activists. The recent, horrific murders of Randy Echanis and Zara Alvarez emphasize the vulnerability of activists and organizers to the violence of red-tagging and alleged state-sponsored extrajudicial killings.

In “The Jakarta Method,” journalist Vincent Bevins illustrates how the violence and anti-communist paranoia we suffer today is rooted in history. Bevins’ book is a thoroughly-researched and fiercely-unflinching reconstruction of the events surrounding the killings of millions of Indonesians under the US-backed dictator Suharto. Drawing from world histories, archives, and personal interviews with survivors, Bevins charts the historical trail, from Brazil to Indonesia, of coup d’etats, assassinations, tortures and massacres, which served to uphold the interests of global capitalism, and created a new world order of total and unquestioned American hegemony.

Suharto as the head of the Strategic Reserve in 1963. Photo from WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Much like the Philippines, Indonesia emerged from the shadow of a colonial power in the 1940s, and aspired towards true independence and nationhood. And like the Philippines, the United States set its sights on Indonesia as a potential ally in the Asia-Pacific. Led by its magnetic leader Sukarno, Indonesia declared independence from its Dutch colonial masters in 1945, and succeeded in completely expelling the Dutch powers by 1949. Though not a communist himself and friendly to Washington, Sukarno kept a close relationship with the Partai Komunis Indonesia or the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), then one of the country’s largest forces. Above all, Sukarno was an anti-imperialist, championing the rights of former colonies to freedom and self-determination. In the 1955 Afro-Asian Conference in Bandung, Sukarno popularized the term “Third World,” and Bevins discusses how the phrase was initially one of hope and empowerment. First World meant nations allied with the United States. Second World meant an alliance with the other Cold War superpower, the Soviet Union. Third World meant neither complete alliance to the First or Second Worlds, but the capacity to forge a foreign policy and democratic system free from the coercion of any global superpower.

And in Indonesia, part of the new democratic system involved the active participation of the PKI. Far from being the baby-eating boogeymen portrayed in conservative popular culture, the Indonesian communists and the PKI were among the country’s most powerful social movements. It counted over three million members, and at least 20 million members of affiliated trade unions and people’s organizations. The PKI received millions of votes in the 1955 elections, and Indonesians saw it was one of the cleanest, most efficient political parties in the country, delivering necessary programs to marginalized sectors, such as land reform, ethical working conditions, and even entertainment in small towns and villages.

American policy towards Sukarno grew increasingly hostile in the late 1950s and ‘60s. Bevins elaborates how neutrality ceased to be tolerated by Washington: any leader who was not explicitly anti-communist was allied with the Soviet Union, and therefore an enemy. Bevins documents how the U.S. began a series of covert and overt tactics to undermine Sukarno and topple his administration. Some of these were ludicrous: the CIA attempted to discredit Sukarno by faking a sex tape with a “Hispanic-looking” actor that slightly resembled the leader. Most of these were outright violent, like CIA-organized bombings of the island Ambon, and its funding of rebel leaders in Sumatra.

Anti-communist literature in Indonesia blaming them for the September 30 movement that resulted to the assassination of six Indonesian Army generals. Photo by DAVIDELIT/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

U.S. intervention in Indonesia culminated in the mass killings of 1965 to 1966. Bevins narrates how a mid-level military coup in 1965 was used by military general Suharto to overthrow Sukarno and seize power. Until now, no one knows the exact masterminds or reasons behind the coup. But Suharto, together with the U.S. propaganda machine, wove a sensational narrative about how the PKI orchestrated the coup to destroy Indonesian society, fabricating wild details such as PKI cadres dancing naked in front of captured generals before gouging their eyes and cutting off their genitals. Suharto made-up PKI crimes to turn one of the most-beloved political parties into one of the most-hated among Indonesians, and paved the way for their annihilation.

In recounting this slaughter, Bevins takes great lengths to show how many of the tortured and the murdered were not merely statistics, but flesh-and-blood people with dreams and aspirations. There was Magdalena, a worker at a t-shirt factory and member of a PKI-affiliated union; Suhada, a funny PKI member in Central Java noted for his eloquence; Francisca Pattipholy, an intelligent, cosmopolitan member of the old aristocracy, whose husband worked for a PKI-run newspaper. They were among the few of the millions whose lives were shattered by Suharto’s anti-communist purge. Millions were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, exiled, and killed. Bevins paints a harrowing and gut-wrenching portrait of the carnage that gripped Indonesia. The beaches of Bali became a field of corpses. The families of the dead couldn’t find their remains since “there were too many skulls, too many skeletons.” Throughout this, the CIA provided Suharto, his military, and paramilitaries with lists of communists and sympathizers.

Bevins convincingly argues that the events in Indonesia aren’t an aberration, but part of a larger, global effort to invalidate and eliminate communist movements, no matter the toll to human life. And the cost, as Bevins shows and as we in the Global South experience everyday, is staggering. The term Third World morphed from one of hope to one associated with human poverty and indignity. The phrase “Jakarta Method” became synonymous with right-wing extermination programs of leftists and progressives. The Brazilian dictatorship developed Operação Jacarta or “The Jakarta Operation” to eliminate members of the Brazilian Communist Party. “Yakarta viene” or “Jakarta is Coming” was scrawled on the streets of Santiago in Chile in the early 1970s. In 1973, the democratically-elected Chilean president Salvador Allende would be overthrown by a U.S.-backed military junta, and Chile would be plunged into decades of dictatorship. Bevins weaves all these different events into a cohesive narrative of betrayal and savagery, so brutally enforced and institutionalized that the specter of anti-communism still haunts the world today.

Though Bevins only makes a few mentions of the Philippines in “The Jakarta Method” (mainly Colonel Edward Lansdale's hand in anti-Hukbalahap operations), the parallels between the archipelago-nations of Indonesia and the Philippines are impossible to ignore. Bevins is one of the few but increasing number of scholars who have questioned Suharto’s narrative of the September 30 events, which has persisted even after his dictatorship. It has been so ingrained in Indonesian society that there is the Museum Pengkhianatan PKI or Museum of Communist Betrayal dedicated to reproducing the myth among newer generations. The eminent scholar Benedict Anderson questioned Suharto’s narrative in the 1980s, and was expelled and banned from Indonesia as a result. Likewise, the cult of historical revisionism is still alive and well in the Philippines, with the burial of Ferdinand Marcos in the Heroes’ Cemetery, and the threat of a Bongbong Marcos presidential campaign in 2022. “The Jakarta Method” serves as a reminder to Filipinos that history can and will be revised to serve the interests of those in power. The book ends with a list of anti-communist massacres around the world. With the Duterte administration’s vow to end the national communist insurgency by 2022, the list will grow longer.