In September 2017, a group of elderly victims of the mass violence that occurred in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966 had planned to gather, with their families, to mark the anniversary at the offices of Jakarta’s Legal Aid Institute, known as Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Jakarta (LBH). But the event was shut down by police, in response to the angry demands of ultranationalists and Islamist protesters.
The next day, LBH decided defiantly to hold an ad hoc human rights festival at its offices, with music, comedy and art. The radical right-wingers turned up, in large numbers, barricading attendees in the building. Then they turned violent. Witnesses described fragile genocide survivors in their seventies and eighties trapped inside the venue overnight without food or water, as the mob outside yelled, “Eliminate the communists.” It was hours before the rioters were dispersed by authorities, with few arrests.
“The events of the past two days represent a deeply troubling new low,” wrote LBH’s former director Nurkholis Hidayat. “Never before has a discussion – on any theme – at LBH been broken up by state authorities.” This was a grim indictment of President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, given that LBH was established under the military dictatorship of Suharto. Such is the enduring rhetorical power of anti-communism in Indonesia, even in its two-decades-old democracy.
American journalist Vincent Bevins had relocated from São Paulo to Jakarta just months earlier. That night, he received texts from his roommate, who was inside the building, and he posted them to Twitter. Bevins faced “threats and accusations that I was a communist, or even a member of Indonesia’s nonexistent Communist Party,” he writes in The Jakarta Method. “I had become used to receiving exactly these kinds of messages in South America. The similarities were no coincidence.”
The Jakarta Method draws compelling links between the mass killings across the Indonesian archipelago in 1965 and 1966, and the US-backed Brazilian military coup of 1964 and subsequent anti-communist violence in Latin America during the Cold War. As a former Los Angeles Times correspondent on South America and South-East Asia correspondent for The Washington Post, Bevins is well placed to present the shared history of two distant regions. For The Jakarta Method, he conducted interviews and consulted archives across continents in English, Indonesian, Spanish and Portuguese.
An estimated 500,000 to one million people were murdered in Indonesia by the army, militias and criminal gangs. A further 1.5 million were imprisoned due to alleged communist connections. These numbers often obscure the individual losses. Bevins does the important work of illuminating the destruction wrought on victims, such as Indonesian couple Francisca and Zain, two of the book’s protagonists: “They were sentenced to annihilation, and almost everyone around them was sentenced to a lifetime of guilt, trauma, and being told they had sinned unforgivably because of their association with the earnest hopes of left-wing politics.”
Yet as the book shows, the consequences of the mass violence extended beyond the immediate victims. It resulted in the extermination of Indonesia’s left – a legacy still felt today in the absence of any serious social democratic party in the nation – and enabled a power grab by Suharto, the “smiling general” once named the world’s most corrupt leader ever by Forbes. Many figures that served under his New Order regime, such as Luhut Binsar Panjaitan – a former general who now serves as a gatekeeper for Jokowi – remain in positions of influence today.
While Brazil established the National Truth Commission to investigate human rights violations under the Fifth Brazilian Republic military dictatorship, in Indonesia there remains total impunity for state-sanctioned perpetrators of violence under Suharto. There has also been no serious attempt to prosecute the executors of subsequent egregious human rights abuses – such as the abductions and forced disappearances of pro-democracy activists in 1998, allegedly under orders from then special forces commander Prabowo Subianto (now Indonesia’s defence minister) and then defence minister Wiranto (now a presidential adviser to Jokowi).
In 2012, Indonesia’s national human rights commission released a landmark report on the massacres in 1965–66, which called on the state to establish a truth and reconciliation commission and issue a formal apology to victims. But the report was rejected by the attorney-general. Its findings have never been accepted by the government, nor its recommendations implemented.
That same year, Oscar-nominated documentary The Act of Killing, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer, highlighted the massacres to mainstream Western audiences for the first time. Bevins says he hopes his book will be “complementary” to The Act of Killing and the 2014 follow-up, The Look of Silence, and, rightly, urges readers to watch them.
In 2015, the International People’s Tribunal, held in The Hague to investigate “50 years of silence”, found Indonesia responsible for crimes against humanity and genocide. Chief Justice Zak Yacoob, a South African jurist and anti-apartheid activist, ruled that ten gross human rights violations had taken place: mass killing, imprisonment, slavery, torture, forced disappearance, sexual violence, banishment, false propaganda, international complicity and genocide.
As Bevins maintains, the United States was not simply a tacit bystander of these crimes. Agents of the nascent CIA were actively involved: “What happened in Brazil in 1964 and Indonesia in 1965 may have been the most important victories of the Cold War for the side that ultimately won – that is, the United States and the global economic system now in operation.”
They knew that Indonesia, now the world’s fourth most-populous country, was a far more important prize than Vietnam ever could have been. In just a few months, the US foreign policy establishment achieved there what it failed to get done in ten bloody years of war in Indochina.
Declassified documents have shown that Australia, along with America and the United Kingdom, engaged in black propaganda campaigns to whip up anti-communist hysteria, including using Radio Australia to broadcast army propaganda.
Indonesia remains one of the only countries where communism is illegal. This ban is not simply a relic of the past. It is used increasingly today to criminalise activism across Indonesia – particularly when environmentalists seek to get in the way of capitalist exploitation of the country’s immense natural resources.
Around the same time that LBH’s office was barricaded in 2017, prominent environmental activist Heri Budiawan was arrested at the other end of Java for allegedly displaying communist iconography during a demonstration against a gold mine.
Accused of carrying a banner featuring a hammer and sickle during a protest in Banyuwangi, East Java, Heri was handed a ten-month sentence. He appealed, and it was increased to four years by the Supreme Court. He remains in jail.
Across Indonesia, seizures of leftist literature are commonplace. In July 2019, for instance, police and military raided a literary collective in East Java, seizing books about the head of the defunct Indonesian Communist Party, D.N. Aidit, who was shot by pro-Suharto forces in November 1965. “The spectre of [the Communist Party] did not disappear with the collapse of the New Order,” wrote Herlambang P. Wiratraman, a lecturer in human rights at Airlangga University, late last year. “Instead, we are witnessing its return in the courtroom.”
As The Jakarta Method highlights, the world may well have forgotten about the devastating events of 1965–66, but they have had enduring political consequences for the nation – and, for millions of people, they remain an inescapable part of their daily lives.