In May 1962, a girl named Ing Giok Tan got on a rusty old boat in Jakarta, Indonesia. Her country, one of the largest in the world, had been pulled into the global battle between capitalism and communism, and her parents decided to flee the terrible consequences that conflict had wrought for families like hers. They set sail for Brazil, having heard from other Indonesians who had already made the journey that this place offered freedom, opportunity, and respite from conflict. But they knew almost nothing about it. Brazil was just an idea for them, and it was very far away. Suffering through anxiety and seasickness for forty-five days, they made their way past Singapore, across the Indian Ocean to Mauritius, down past Mozambique, around South Africa, and then all the way across the Atlantic to São Paulo, the largest city in South America.
If they thought they could escape the violence of the cold war, they were tragically mistaken. Two years after they arrived, the military overthrew Brazil’s young democracy and established a violent dictatorship. After that, the new Indonesian immigrants in Brazil received messages from home describing the most shocking scenes imaginable, an explosion of violence so terrifying that even discussing what happened would make people break down, questioning their own sanity. But the reports were all true. In the wake of that apocalyptic slaughter in Indonesia, a young nation littered with mutilated bodies emerged as one of Washington’s most reliable allies, and then largely disappeared from history.
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. As such, they are among the most important events in a process that has fundamentally shaped life for almost everyone. Both countries had been independent, standing somewhere in between the world’s capitalist and communist superpowers, but fell decisively into the US camp in the middle of the 1960s.
Officials in Washington and journalists in New York certainly understood how significant these events were at the time. 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. And the dictatorship in Brazil, currently the world’s fifth most-populous country, played a crucial role in pushing the rest of South America into the pro-Washington, anticommunist group of nations. In both countries, the Soviet Union was barely involved.
Most shockingly, the two events led to the creation of a monstrous international network of extermination—that is, the systematic mass murder of civilians—across many more countries, which played a fundamental role in building the world we all live in today.
Unless you are Indonesian, or a specialist on the topic, most people know very little about Indonesia, and almost nothing about what happened in 1965–1966 in that archipelago nation. The truth of the violence remained hidden for decades. The dictatorship established in its wake told the world a lie, and survivors were imprisoned or too terrified to speak out. It is only as a result of the efforts of heroic Indonesian activists and dedicated scholars around the world that we can now tell the story. Documents recently declassified in Washington, D.C., have been a huge help, though some of what happened still remains shrouded in mystery.
Indonesia likely fell off the proverbial map because the events of 1965–1966 were such a complete success for Washington. No US soldiers died, and no one at home was ever in danger. Although Indonesian leaders in the 1950s and 1960s had played a huge international role, after 1966 the country stopped rocking the boat entirely. But after going through the documentation and spending a lot of time with the people who lived through these events, I came to form another, deeply unsettling theory as to why these episodes have been forgotten. I fear that the truth of what happened contradicts so forcefully our idea of what the cold war was, of what it means to be an American, or how globalization has taken place, that it has simply been easier to ignore it.
Two events in my own life convinced me that the events of the mid-1960s are very much still with us. That their ghosts still haunt the world, so to speak.
In 2016, I was working my sixth and final year as Brazil correspondent for the Los Angeles Times, and I was walking the halls of Congress in Brasília. Lawmakers in the world’s third-largest democracy were preparing to vote on whether they would impeach President Dilma Rousseff, a former left-wing guerrilla and the country’s first female president. Down the corridor, I recognized an unimportant but reliably outspoken far-right congressman by the name of Jair Bolsonaro, so I approached him for a quick interview. It was widely known by that point that political rivals were trying to bring President Rousseff down on a technicality, and that those organizing her ouster were guilty of far more corruption than she was.
Because I was a foreign journalist, I asked Bolsonaro if he worried the international community might doubt the legitimacy of the more conservative government that was set to replace her, given the questionable proceedings that day. The answers he gave me seemed so far outside the mainstream, such a complete resurrection of cold war phantoms, that I didn’t even use the interview. He said, “The world will celebrate what we do today, because we are stopping Brazil from turning into another North Korea.”
This was absurd. Rousseff was a center-left leader whose government had been, if anything, too friendly with huge corporations.
A few moments later, Bolsonaro walked up to the microphone in the congressional chambers and made a declaration that shook the country. He dedicated his impeachment vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, the man who, as a colonel during Brazil’s dictatorship, oversaw Rousseff’s own torture. It was an outrageous provocation, an attempt to rehabilitate the country’s anticommunist military regime and to become the national symbol of far-right opposition to everything.
When I interviewed Rousseff a few weeks later, as she waited for the final vote that would remove her from office, our conversation invariably turned to the role of the United States in Brazil’s affairs. Considering the many times and ways Washington had intervened to overthrow governments in South America, many of her supporters wondered if the CIA was behind this one, too. She denied it: it was the result of Brazil’s internal dynamics. But that is, in its own way, even worse: Brazil’s dictatorship had transitioned to the type of democracy that could safely remove anyone—like Rousseff or Lula—whom the economic or political elites deemed a threat to their interests, and they could summon cold war demons to go to battle for them when they pleased.
We now know the extent to which Bolsonaro’s gambit succeeded. When he was elected president two years later, I was in Rio. Fights immediately erupted in the streets. Big burly men started yelling at tattooed women who wore stickers supporting the rival candidate, screaming, “Communists! Get out! Communists! Get out!”
In 2017, I moved in the exact opposite direction that Ing Giok Tan and her family had so many years before. I relocated from São Paulo to Jakarta to cover Southeast Asia for The Washington Post. Just months after I arrived, a group of academics and activists planned to put on a low-key conference to discuss the events of 1965. But some people were spreading the accusation on social media that this was actually a meeting to resurrect communism—still illegal in the country, over fifty years later—and a mob made their way toward the event that night, not long after I had left.
Groups composed largely of Islamist men, now common participants in aggressive Jakarta street demonstrations, surrounded the building and trapped everyone inside. My roommate, Niken, a young labor organizer from Central Java, was held captive there all night, as the mob pounded on the walls, chanting, “Crush the communists!” and “Burn them alive!” She sent me texts, terrified, asking me to publicize what was happening, so I did so on Twitter.
It didn’t take long for that to generate threats and accusations that I was a communist, or even a member of Indonesia’s nonexistent Communist Party. I had become used to receiving exactly these kinds of messages in South America. The similarities were no coincidence. The paranoia in both places can be traced back to a traumatic rupture in the middle of the 1960s.
Magdalena was born in 1948, when Indonesia’s independence forces, under the leadership of the country’s first president, Sukarno, were still fighting to expel the Dutch colonizers. She grew up in a troubled peasant family, always tossed back and forth as a result of marital strife, sickness, and poverty. Like most residents of Java (with the notable exception of the ethnic Chinese), she was Muslim, but she never got very deep into studies of the Quran. At school, she loved gamelan, the traditional Javanese music form, in which a small percussive orchestra plays meditative, meandering ensemble pieces, which can rise and fall slowly for hours.
But she was pulled away from all of that fairly quickly. At thirteen, she dropped out to work as a maid in a nearby household. At fifteen, her mother fell ill, so she came back home and began to sell what they could to their neighbors for some money: bits of wood, salads, cooked meals, fried cassava, whatever they could to get by.
She had never been to a big city, but word was it was easier to get a job in Jakarta. An aunt of hers, Le, had some connections in the capital and told her she could help her get set up there. So, aged sixteen, she got on the train, and rode for a full day, moving slowly westward on tracks originally put down by the Dutch a hundred years earlier, and arrived in Jakarta, all alone. As she passed by the National Monument, she marveled at its scale—about ten times as high as any building she’d ever seen.
They were right about the job prospects. Almost immediately, she started working at a T-shirt factory. Her new employer put her in a small, shared apartment attached to the company’s office, with all the other girls. In the morning, she’d put on her uniform and wait. Just after six, she and all the other girls piled into a big truck, which took them from their little home in Jatinegara, East Jakarta, and rode through the morning to Duren Tiga in the South, as the city sped by. They worked from seven to four, and the pay wasn’t bad. The men washed the cloth, and the women cut it into the right shapes. Someone else, somewhere else, put it all together.
Conditions were okay, Magdalena thought. And she learned, right away, that this was because of SOBSI, the trade union network affiliated with the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) that had organized most of the workers in the country. She joined, like everyone else did, and after a few months got a minor administrative role in her local union, without many real duties. She came, cut the cloth, and went home.
That was her first, very minor, introduction to Indonesian politics. She barely understood the revolutionary slogans or ideological jargon coming through the radio at work. She hardly knew anything about the PKI, and had no idea that it was the largest communist party in the world outside of China and the USSR. Nor did she know that President Sukarno, a founding leader of the Non-Aligned Movement that resisted taking sides with either the capitalist or the communist superpowers, was then pitted in a major confrontation with the United States and Britain. SOBSI was simply part of the gig, she knew, and it helped out a lot.
“They would support us, they had our backs, and their strategy worked,” she said. “It really worked. That’s what we knew.”
When she got off work, she was usually too tired to do much—and a bit too young and lonely to venture out into the big city. She kept her head down, and just observed. She didn’t talk politics after work—she would lie around and make small talk with her best friend in Jakarta, Siti, maybe gossiping about boys, discussing which girls had boyfriends or husbands. Though she had always been single, she had learned early, growing up back home, that she was considered very pretty. Dating was something she might try later. For now, she was working on building some savings for a life that was just a little more secure.
On September 29, 1965, most Indonesians had no idea who General Suharto was. But the CIA did. As early as September 1964, the CIA listed Suharto in a secret cable as one of the Army generals it considered to be “friendly” to US interests and anticommunist. The cable also put forward the idea of an anticommunist military–civilian coalition that could take control of the country if there were a power struggle.
The leaders of the Gerakan 30 September, or September 30th Movement—military officers themselves—knew General Suharto, too. The nature of their operation, which started in the early morning of October 1, is still shrouded in mystery. We know that for all of 1965, the political situation in Indonesia was unstable, with the unarmed Communists on one side and the US-backed military on the other. And we know that as Sukarno hovered somewhere in between, American and British intelligence services covertly agitated for conflict between the two groups, and rumors of plotting abounded in Jakarta. The leaders of the September 30th Movement sent out squads of soldiers to kidnap seven of their Army superiors, whom they accused of planning a right-wing coup. Six of those senior officers ended up dead, and the September 30th Movement was used as a pretext for a brutal crackdown on the PKI.
Suharto, a laconic forty-four-year-old major general from Central Java, was serving as head of the Army’s Strategic Command, or KOSTRAD. Suharto had studied under a man named Suwarto, a close friend of RAND Corporation consultant Guy Pauker and one of the Indonesian officers most responsible for implementing US-allied counterinsurgency operations.
On the morning of October 1, Suharto arrived at KOSTRAD, which for some reason had not been targeted or neutralized by the September 30th Movement, even though it sat directly across from Independence Square, which they occupied that morning. At an emergency meeting in the early morning, he took over as commander of the Armed Forces. In the afternoon, he told the troops at Independence Square to disperse and put an end to the rebellion or he would attack. He retook central Jakarta without firing a single shot, and went on the radio himself to declare the September 30th Movement had been defeated.
President Sukarno ordered another major general, Pranoto, to meet him at Halim Air Force Base and assume temporary command of the Armed Forces. Contradicting a direct order from his commander in chief, Suharto forbade Pranoto to go, and gave Sukarno himself an order: leave the airport. Sukarno did so, and fled to a presidential palace outside the city. Suharto then easily took control of the airport, and then the entire country, ignoring Sukarno when he saw fit.
Once in command, Suharto ordered that all media be shut down, with the exception of the military outlets he now controlled. He then controlled all mass communications, and accused the PKI of shocking crimes, using deliberate and incendiary falsehoods to whip up hatred against the left across the country.
The military spread the story that the PKI was the mastermind of a failed communist coup. Suharto and his men claimed that the Indonesian Communist Party had brought the generals back to Halim Air Force Base and begun a depraved, demonic ritual. They said members of Gerwani, the communist-affiliated Women’s Movement, danced naked while the women mutilated and tortured the generals, cutting off their genitals and gouging out their eyes, before murdering them. They claimed that the PKI had long lists of people they planned to kill, and mass graves already prepared. They said China had secretly delivered arms to People’s Youth Brigades. The Army paper, Angkatan Bersendjata (Armed Forces), printed photos of the dead generals’ bodies, reporting they had been “cruelly and viciously slaughtered” in acts of torture that were “an affront to humanity.”
After some initial confusion, the US government assisted Suharto in the crucial early phase of spreading propaganda and establishing his anticommunist narrative. Washington covertly supplied vital mobile communications equipment to the military, a now-declassified cable indicates. This was also a tacit admission, very early, that the US government recognized the Army, not Sukarno, as the true leader of the country, even though Sukarno was still legally the president. The United States had been trying to stop the PKI for over a decade, precisely because US authorities knew the Communists were so popular. The Americans tried funding a conservative Muslim party, but the PKI kept winning over more voters; they had the CIA bomb the country in 1958 to break it into pieces, and that failed, too. But now their ambassador in Jakarta, Marshall Green, saw “an opportunity to move against Communist Party,” as he wrote in a cable. “It’s now or never.”
The Western press did its part, too. Voice of America, the BBC, and Radio Australia broadcast reports that emphasized Indonesian military propaganda points, as part of a psychological warfare campaign to demonize the PKI. Indonesian-language versions of these broadcasts reached inside the country as well, and Indonesians remember thinking that the credibility of Suharto’s narrative was more trustworthy because they heard respected international outlets saying the same thing.
Every part of the story the Indonesian Army told is a lie. No Gerwani women participated in any killings on October 1. The story spread by Suharto hits on some of the darkest fears and prejudices held by Indonesians, and indeed men in general—around the world. A surprise night raid on your home. Slow torture with blades. The inversion of gender roles, the literal assault on strong men’s reproductive organs carried out by demonic, sexually depraved communist women. It’s the stuff of a well-written, reactionary horror film, and few people believe Suharto came up with it himself.
The similarities with the Brazilian legend of the Intentona Comunista, an important part of the run-up to the US-backed 1964 military coup in that country, are striking. Just a year after a coup in the most important nation in Latin America was inspired partly by a legend about communist soldiers stabbing generals to death in their sleep, General Suharto told the most important nation in Southeast Asia that communists and left-wing soldiers whisked generals away from their homes in the dead of night to be murdered slowly with knives, and then both Washington-aligned anticommunist military dictatorships celebrated the anniversary of those rebellions in very much the same way for decades.
The Army newspaper Angkatan Bersendjata published a cartoon of a man striking a tree trunk with an axe. On the tree is written “G30S,” the Indonesian-language acronym for the September 30th Movement, and the roots spell “PKI,” the Communist Party. The caption reads: “Exterminate them down to the roots.” Internally, however, the Indonesian Army had a different name. It called this Operasi Penumpasan—Operation Annihilation.
Magdalena, meanwhile, barely noticed that there had been a bit of political chaos in early October in the capital. She certainly didn’t know things back in Central Java, where she grew up, were much worse than they were in Jakarta.
Her grandmother had fallen ill, so she got time off from her job at the T-shirt factory. On October 19, she took a train back to her village to visit her. Health problems had plagued her family her whole life. By the time she arrived, her grandmother had already passed. The plan was to attend the funeral and spend a week, maybe two, grieving with the family, then get back to work in Jakarta. She went to bed in her childhood home in Purwokerto.
The following day, in Washington, the State Department received another cable from Green. He reported that the PKI had suffered “some damage to its organizational strength through arrest, harassment and, in some cases, execution of PKI cadres.” He continued: “If army repression of PKI continues and army refuses to give up its position of power to Sukarno, PKI strength can be cut back. In long run, however, army repression of PKI will not be successful unless it is willing to attack communism as such.” Green concluded: “Army has nevertheless been working hard at destroying PKI and I, for one, have increasing respect for its determination and organization in carrying out this crucial assignment.”
In the early afternoon, two police officers arrived at Magdalena’s family home in Purwokerto, less than twenty-four hours after her arrival. “You’re coming with us. We need some information from you,” they told her.
The entire house erupted, crying, screaming. Magdalena’s family had heard some people were arrested recently in the neighborhood, but they didn’t know she was a member of a SOBSI union in Jakarta; neither they nor Magdalena knew that could ever be a problem in the first place.
At the police station, officers began to yell at her, interrogating her. They told her they knew she was a member of the Gerwani. She wasn’t. She didn’t know what to say to them, except that she wasn’t. She was in Jakarta, they said. Maybe she was even at the slaughter. She didn’t know anything about this, she told them.
These interrogations started, and stopped, and started again, for seven days. Then the officers took her to another police station, in Semarang. As soon as she arrived, she collapsed. She was sick, or overwhelmed. She was dizzy all over. She was, by then, seventeen years old.
She’s not sure how long she was at the second police station before two police officers raped her. She was Gerwani, in the minds of the police, which meant that she was not a human being, and not a woman, but a sexually depraved murderer. An enemy of Indonesia and Islam. A witch. These men were in charge of her now.
On October 22, the State Department received detailed reports of the extent and nature of the Army operations as killings began in Java. A “Moslem Youth Leader” reported that “assistants” were accompanying troops on sweeps that led to killings. National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy wrote to President Johnson that events in Indonesia since September 30 “are so far a striking vindication of U.S. policy towards that nation in recent years.”
Two weeks later, the White House authorized the CIA station in Bangkok to provide small arms to its military contact in Central Java “for use against the PKI,” alongside medical supplies that would come in from the CIA station in Bangkok.
In January 1966, Senator Bobby Kennedy said, “We have spoken out against the inhuman slaughters perpetrated by the Nazis and the Communists. But will we speak out also against the inhuman slaughter in Indonesia, where over 100,000 alleged Communists have not been perpetrators but victims?” He wildly underestimated the number of the dead, but at least he said something. No other prominent US politician condemned the massacre. By this time, RFK was in the habit of speaking out forcefully in ways that others wouldn’t. It’s unclear whether he knew that the Johnson administration was actively assisting with the massacre at that point. Maybe RFK had a kind of conversion about the nature of black ops after his brother’s death. Maybe it was politics. But whatever it was, Washington did not stop helping to carry out Operation Annihilation.
On April 13, 1966, C.L. Sulzberger penned a piece, one of many in this genre, with the headline “When a Nation Runs Amok” for The New York Times. As Sulzberger described it, the killings occurred in “violent Asia, where life is cheap.” He reproduced the lie that Communist Party members had killed the generals on October 1, and that Gerwani women slashed and tortured them. He went on to affirm that “Indonesians are gentle… but hidden behind their smiles is that strange Malay streak, that inner, frenzied blood-lust which has given to other languages one of their few Malay words: amok.”
The Malay, and now Indonesian, concept of amok actually referred to a traditional form of ritual suicide, even if the anglicization now refers to wild violence more generally. But there’s no reason to believe that the mass violence of 1965–1966 has its roots in native culture. No one has any evidence of mass murder of this kind happening in Indonesian history, except for when foreigners were involved.
This story of inexplicable, vaguely tribal violence—so easy for American readers to digest—was entirely false. This was organized state violence with a clear purpose. The main obstacles to a complete military takeover were eliminated by a coordinated program of extermination—the intentional mass murder of innocent civilians. The generals were able to take power after state terror sufficiently weakened their political opponents, who had no weapons, only public sympathy. They didn’t resist their own annihilation because they had no idea what was coming.
In total, it is estimated that between five hundred thousand and one million people were slaughtered, and one million more were herded into concentration camps. Millions more people were indirect victims of the massacres, but no one came around to inquire how many loved ones they had lost.
Their silence was the point of the violence. The Armed Forces did not oversee the extermination of every single communist, alleged communist, and potential communist sympathizer in the country. That would have been nearly impossible, because around a quarter of the country was affiliated somehow with the PKI. Once the killings took hold, it became incredibly hard to find anyone who would admit to any association with the PKI.
Around 15 percent of the prisoners taken were women. They were subjected to especially cruel, gendered violence, which sprung directly from the propaganda spread by Suharto with Western help. Except for a tiny number of people possibly involved in the planning of the disastrous September 30th Movement, almost everyone killed and imprisoned was entirely innocent of any crime. Magdalena, an apolitical teenage member of a communist-affiliated union, was innocent.
The rank-and-file card-carrying members of the unarmed Communist Party, who made up a large proportion of the victims, were also entirely innocent. They didn’t do anything wrong at all, yet they were condemned 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.
When the conflict came, and when the opportunity arose, the US government helped spread the propaganda that made the killing possible and engaged in constant conversations with the Army to make sure the military officers had everything they needed, from weapons to kill lists. The US embassy constantly prodded the military to adopt a stronger position and take over the government, knowing full well that the method being employed to make this possible was to round up hundreds of thousands of people around the country, stab or strangle them, and throw their corpses into rivers. The Indonesian military officers understood very well that the more people they killed, the weaker the left would be, and the happier Washington would be.
It wasn’t only US government officials who handed over kill lists to the Army. Managers of US-owned plantations furnished them with the names of “troublesome” communists and union organizers, who were then murdered.
The prime responsibility for the massacres and concentration camps lies with the Indonesian military. We still do not know if the method employed— disappearance and mass extermination—was planned well before October 1965, perhaps inspired by other cases around the world, or planned under foreign direction, or if it emerged as a solution as events unfolded. But Washington shares guilt for every death. The United States was part and parcel of the operation at every stage, starting well before the killing started, until the last body dropped and the last political prisoner emerged from jail, decades later, tortured, scarred, and bewildered. At several points that we know of—and perhaps some we don’t—Washington was the prime mover and provided crucial pressure for the operation to move forward or expand.
And in the end, US officials got what they wanted. It was a huge victory. As historian John Roosa puts it, “Almost overnight the Indonesian government went from being a fierce voice for cold war neutrality and anti-imperialism to a quiet, compliant partner of the US world order.”
In 1971, as the Brazilian dictatorship collaborated with right-wing forces in Chile, the word “Jakarta” was put to new use. In both countries, the capital of Indonesia now had the same meaning.
Operação Jacarta, or “the Jakarta Operation,” was the name of a secret part of an extermination plan, according to documentation compiled by Brazil’s Truth Commission. Testimony gathered after the fall of the dictatorship indicates Operação Jacarta may have been part of Operação Radar, which was aimed at destroying the structure of the Brazilian Communist Party. The goal of Operação Jacarta was the physical elimination of communists. It called for mass murder, just as in Indonesia. Before the Jakarta Operation, the dictatorship had aimed its violence at open rebellions. Operação Jacarta was a hidden plan to expand state terror to Communist Party members operating openly with civil society groups or in the media.
The Brazilian public would not hear the words Operação Jacarta until three years later. But in Chile, the word “Jakarta” made a very public arrival. Around Santiago, especially in the eastern part of the city—up in the hills, where the well-to-do people lived—someone began to plaster a message on the walls. It took a few forms. “Yakarta viene.” “Jakarta se acerca.” That is: “Jakarta is Coming.” Or sometimes, simply, “Jakarta.”
The first record of “Jakarta” appearing as a threat was in a January 1972 edition of El Rebelde, the official MIR newspaper. The cover asked, “What is Djakarta?” and on the inside showed a photo of the word slapped onto a wall. In a small article, “La Via Indonesia de Los Fascistas Chilenos,” the paper attempted to explain what the message meant. The Indonesian Communist Party had played an active role in an “independent, progressive” state, and then—overnight—all that was left of its members was a “sea of blood.” At this point, not all of the Chilean left knew the Indonesian story, and the idea of a wave of violence here seemed far-fetched.
The second article on Jakarta came out in February 1972 in Ramona, a Communist Party youth magazine. It claimed that the right wing had adopted something called “Plan Djakarta,” and said it had gotten the plan from David Rockefeller or Agustín Edwards (the owner of the El Mercurio newspaper, which received CIA funding). “The Chilean extreme right wants to repeat that massacre,” the article explained. “What does that mean concretely? The terrorists have a plan which consists of killing the entire Central Committee of the Communist Party, the top of the Socialist Party, the national directors of CUT, the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores de Chile union organization, leaders of social movements, and all prominent figures on the Left.”
Wall painting was a popular political device in Santiago in the early 1970s. On the left, volunteer collectives painted murals with elaborate images created by young artists inspired both by famous international muralists, such as Diego Rivera in Mexico, and by Chile’s indigenous Mapuche culture. On the right, money pouring in from Washington or supplied by local elites was used to contract professional painters, who were both more efficient and less talented, because they were used to plastering simple advertising messages.
Patricio “Pato” Madera, a founding member of the left-wing Ramona Parra Brigade of muralists, recognized the “Jakarta” graffiti as the handiwork of the same class of hired hands who had been painting right-wing slogans in recurring terror campaigns since 1964. But this was an escalation. It was a mass death threat.
Operação Jacarta. Yakarta Viene. Plan Yakarta. In both Spanish and Portuguese, in all three ways it was used, it’s clear what “Jakarta” meant: anticommunist mass murder and the state-organized extermination of civilians who opposed the construction of capitalist authoritarian regimes loyal to the United States. It meant forced disappearances and unrepentant state terror. And it would be employed far and wide in Latin America over the two decades that followed.
Magdalena has been beautiful her entire life. All throughout the time she was in prison, guards tried to marry her. She resisted, even though she knew this would improve her situation, maybe even get her out early. She didn’t want a relationship like that.
When she did get out of prison, more men tried to marry her. She resisted. She didn’t feel safe with any man who had not been imprisoned himself. She knew that she was marked for life as a communist, as a witch. Any regular man was likely to view her as a reject, she worried, and treat her like garbage if and when he felt like it.
“How could I trust a regular man to be my husband?” she asked me. “What if he got angry? He could just beat me, call me a communist, and no one would help me.”
In Indonesia, being communist marks you for life as evil, and in many cases, this is seen as something that passes down to your offspring, as if it were a genetic deformity. Children of accused communists were tortured or killed. Some women were prosecuted simply for setting up an orphanage for the children of communist victims. One Indonesian businessman close to Washington warned US officials, years after the killings, that a strong military was needed because the offspring of the communists were growing up.
Magdalena is serene and radiant at seventy-one, but also shy and guarded. She lives alone, in a tiny one-bedroom shack, down an alleyway in the city of Solo, in Central Java. She lives on two hundred thousand rupiah a month, or about fourteen US dollars. She gets a tiny bit of help from her local church, which supplies her with a monthly stipend of five kilos of rice. But she has no family, and she has none of the traditional ties to her community that sustain most women her age. Those were cut when she was accused of being a communist.
When I first pushed my motorcycle down the little road to her home, and walked into her living room, I couldn’t believe my eyes. This is not how elderly Indonesians live. They live in houses with big families—and if they don’t have that, the neighborhood takes care of them. As I walked into her house, no one on her street greeted us. She was not wrong when she figured that she would be marked for life.
This kind of situation is extremely common for survivors of the 1965 violence and repression. It is estimated that tens of millions of victims or relatives of victims are still alive in Indonesia, and almost all live in worse situations than they deserve. This ranges from abject poverty and social isolation to simply being denied the admission that a parent or grandparent was killed unjustly—that their family was not guilty of anything at all.
The small organization that advocates for survivors in this region, Sekretariat Bersama ’65, has fought for decades for recognition of the crimes committed against people like Magdalena. The survivors thought there could be some kind of a truth commission or national reconciliation process; they thought there should be reparations paid to the victims; they thought, at least, there should be a public apology for what happened to them, an affirmation that they are not less than human. None of that has taken place.
In the center of Indonesia’s capital, there is a structure called the Monumen Pancasila Sakti, or Sacred Pancasila Monument. My ride there, just like any ride between two points in Jakarta, was through gridlock traffic, slowly making my way through crowded, polluted streets. Recently, Indonesia’s military has banned foreigners from entering this complex of memorials and museums—it appears authorities don’t want international researchers to examine the site. After visiting, I understand why.
The Sacred Pancasila Monument is a large white marble wall with lifesize figures representing the victims of the September 30th Movement standing in front of it. It’s just a few steps from Lubang Buaya, the well where the six murdered generals’ bodies were found.
But as for everyone else who was killed, there’s no memorial. There is an entire museum—the Museum Pengkhianatan PKI (Komunis), or the Museum of Communist Betrayal—that exists to reinforce the narrative that the communists were a treacherous party that deserved to be eliminated. As you walk down a bizarre series of darkened halls, a series of diorama installations take you through the history of the party, demonstrating each and every time they betrayed the nation, or attacked the military, or plotted to destroy Indonesia, down to reproducing Suharto’s propaganda narrative about the events of October 1965. There is no reference to the up to one million civilians killed as a result.
At the exit, kids pose for photos in front of a big sign that says, “Thank you for observing some of our dioramas about the savagery carried out by the Indonesian Communist Party. Don’t let anything like this ever happen again.”
This essay is adapted from the author’s book The Jakarta Method: Washington’s Anticommunist Crusade and the Mass Murder Program That Shaped Our World, published this week by Public Affairs.