I remember seeing a few years ago a picture of some Indonesian fans at a match during a tour of Southeast Asia by Liverpool. They were holding a banner that read “Justice for the 96”. It was an admirable display of solidarity for the dead of Hillsborough from the other side of the world. But, nonetheless, something jarred about the memorialising, given Indonesia has a significant hole in its collective memory for a massive historical injustice of its own. This was the slaughter of up to one million communists and suspected sympathisers in 1965 and 1966.
After a massacre of six military generals on September 30, which was blamed on communists in increasingly lurid rumours, Major General Suharto wrested control from the Third-Worldist president Sukarno, and the army, with the help of members of the public, set to killing en masse leftists and anyone suspected of being close to them. Many communists willingly turned themselves into authorities, never suspecting the terrible fate that awaited them.
The Liverpool fans would be unlikely to publicly commemorate those deaths, partly because the subject remains taboo in Indonesia, but also because speaking out about it is very dangerous. Dozens to contributors to Joshua Oppenheimer’s acclaimed 2012 documentary The Act of Killing had to be listed in the end credits as “Anonymous”. American journalist Vincent Bevins found interviewees similarly reticent at first when speaking to them for The Jakarta Method, which examines the 1965-66 killings and the influence they had on anti-communist governments in the following decades.
Bevins, who has reported from Brazil for The Los Angeles Times and from Indonesia for The Washington Post, is well-positioned to trace the lineage of suppression across the world aided and abetted by the US, which provided material support and intelligence, including lists of communists and alleged communists, to client governments.
Though Indonesia was not the first instance of US interference to overthrow governments and eliminate nationalist or leftist impediments to its ambitions – it had already done so in Iran in 1953, Guatemala in 1954 and Brazil in 1964 – the “Jakarta method” would become the prototype for future such operations. Brazil would ultimately turn to similar abductions and disappearances to eradicate communist groups, though on a much smaller scale, with hundreds killed and many more tortured, including future president Dilma Rousseff.
Chile would be next, following the overthrow of Salvador Allende’s leftwing government in 1973, with Augusto Pinochet’s government being exceptionally vindictive, assassinating its political opponents – and his own predecessor as army chief-of-staff, Carlos Prats – well beyond its borders. The Nixon administration gave full support to the Pinochet regime, which killed 3,000 people, while an American CIA contact Michael Townley murdered Prats in Buenos Aires in 1974 and former Chilean foreign minister Orlando Letelier in Washington two years later.
While US actions in Cambodia helped facilitate the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and later sheltered Pol Pot and his accomplices for more than a decade after its fall by continuing to recognise it as the country’s legitimate government, the main focus of Washington’s communist attentions would remain Latin America. Bloodthirsty regimes in Argentina, Uruguay, Guatemala and El Salvador would benefit from North American largesse while it waged war on Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government.
Interwoven among the politics in the book are testimonies from former communists Bevins interviewed in several countries, which he relays with novelistic brio. It is very much a benign vision of communism; Bevins reasons that there are plenty of books written about the crimes of communist regimes and he preferred to focus on the optimism of formerly colonised peoples in the mid-20th century (to his credit, on the occasions he does mention communist atrocities, he doesn’t soft-pedal them). Many readers will balk at that but his conception of communists as ordinary people who have no murderous intent is not so different from that of well-meaning American liberals, in whose name the anticommunist campaigns documented in The Jakarta Method were prosecuted.
The George W. Bush administration showed during the War on Terror that Washington had not evolved too much in its tolerance for blood-soaked acts, though the United States in the past decade appears to have taken a sabbatical from its foreign adventures, with the Obama administration preferring the less troublesome recourse to “surgical” drone strikes. Donald Trump, though less of an isolationist than was at first thought, lacks the interest or the attention span to sustain much of a coherent foreign policy.
Despite making plenty of noise, the US is more reticent in intervening against leftwing governments in Latin America these days. Though Bolivian president Evo Morales was unseated last year, Nicolas Maduro remains resilient in Venezuela and other South American countries have seen right and left exchange power without much fuss. One big outlier is, of course, Brazil, now presided over by Jair Bolsonaro, an apologist for the former military dictatorship. Even so, it’s hard to see Washington going to much effort to keep the flailing Bolsonaro in power even if it were to revert to its former sanguinary chicanery.
Originally published by The Irish Times